A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas
Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Nabiki scrambled back to her feet and dusted herself off. The landing had not been very comfortable, and while she didn’t blame Hikaru for the travel arrangements, she was going to have a few choice words with her husband regarding the subject of making sure she was okay and....
Nabiki stopped dead in her tracks, practically floored by what she was seeing. The group stood on a beach, with sand so white and pure that it seemed to shine with a bright glitter of diamonds. The ocean, in one direction, was a crystal clear turquoise color, revealing the sandy beach beneath it and the colorful fishes that swam in the shallow waters. In a second direction lay a long stretch of plains land, verdant and green as anything they’d ever seen in a dream. It was beautiful, idyllic, and earthly perfection, but that wasn’t all.
Stretching into the beautiful blue sky, covered in the occasional white slip of clouds and the warm, inviting sun, were several floating islands of sorts, each containing a massive crystal of some sort in it. They seemed to pulse and glow with an awesome strength, as though they were solar collectors, or perhaps magical objects. Either one might not be that far from the truth, and the whole scene that spread before them seemed so incredible and enchanting, that it might disappear before them in a flash, leaving them back in Nerima and the ugly imperfection of the real world, home that it was.
Still unable to define the beauty that was being unfurled before her, she used her formidable command of the spoken word and her all-alluring charisma to utter a single word: “Utsukushi....” Standing next to her, almost the entire group, save Kuu, was staring at the whole site, completely spellbound and not being able to do much more than nod in agreement. Kuu, having already been exposed to this numerous times, was looking around, trying to get her bearings on the situation.
Ukyo was the first to come back to her senses, followed in turn by Satoru, Michael, and Ryoga, then the rest. “I-is this place real?” she asked, her words seeming to barely come out in a breath.
“Sure it is,” Kuu answered matter-of-factly. “This is the Jeweled Coast; specifically the Kia Gulf, if I guess right. Though I’m not sure where the town of Sephia is in relation to where we are.”
Satoru found her knowledge rather unsettling. “Kuu, how do you know so much about this place?”
“Easy. I’ve been here before.” Seeing the incredulous looks on everyone’s faces, she clarified. “Hikaru and I came here about seven years ago for my sister’s wedding. You remember Fuu, ne, Satoru? Well, Hikaru neglected to mention it, but, um, Fuu’s....” Kuu blushed for a second as she admitted, “She’s the queen of this world. Umi’s also here. She’s a...duchess, if I remember correctly, though she prefers to use her military title.”
Everyone blinked at that, while Ryoga muttered to Ukyo, “Ukyo, our best friend changes gender in water. He’s married to a goddess. One of her friends is a queen; the other’s a duchess. Do we know anyone who’s normal?”
Not even bothering to look back at him, she quipped, “I dress like a boy most of the time and most of my suitors were drag queens. You, in turn, have a wife who’s obsessive about pigs, and Chia pets have a better sense of direction than you. Do we really have to continue this pointless discussion, or should I recap our high school years up to now?”
“Good point.” Brushing the hair out of his eyes, he looked around and said, “So where’s the lovebirds? They got us into this mess.”
“Right behind you, Ryoga.” All turned around to see Ranma, helping Hikaru to her feet as she was looking around. He would have said something more, but she continued to scan the horizon, until she pointed to what appeared to be the west.
“The town of Sephia’s in that direction. That way, about 10 kilometers, on the other side of that bluff.”
“Are you sure?” Ranma asked, which earned him a flat stare from Hikaru. “Um, right. Sorry I asked, love.”
She gave a half-hearted smile herself. “That’s okay, anata. Sometimes I forget what I am here myself. I much prefer my Knight Commander aspect here than my Pillar aspect any day. I’ve seen what the power of the Pillar can do when misused, and frankly, I’m not sure that any one person should have that sort of power--myself included.” Stretching, she began to work the kinks out of her muscles and said, “Well, we have a sort of long walk ahead of us, guys, so I suggest we prep for the trip.”
“Walk?” Shiki sputtered. “If I heard you right, you’re a goddess, ne? Why not conjure up some cars or something, or even just teleport us to wherever we want to go.”
Hikaru nodded. “I won’t teleport us, because I want to see what’s wrong with the land. As for cars, that’s also a no. Cephiro, with some exceptions, is a primarily agrarian world, and cars’ll pollute the atmosphere. I like my world as a beautiful place.”
“Ag-agr...?” Ryoga asked.
“Agrarian. It means farm country, just like your place,” Nabiki supplied. “Okay, then, how far is the capital from here?”
“About 700 kilometers or so,” Hikaru admitted, a bit embarrassed. “But we can see about getting some transportation there.”
“So we’re walking?” Nabiki groaned good-naturedly. “Finally just when I think I’ve managed to get on an A-List, too....”
From all appearances, it was a normal day of operations for the Vanden Plaz, situated in the town that was once called Hiace, but since renamed Piazza Nero in honor of one of the VP’s allies back on their homeworld. Troop formations were being sent on their missions of conquest, and the military machine had been operating as normal. Reports were coming back that several of their skybattleships were raiding the dead world of Autozam for technology, and that the other two worlds, Chizetam and Fahren, were currently under invasion from several of the VP combat forces. With this in mind, it would only be a matter of time before those worlds capitulated.
Daimler, heavily in meditation, was concentrating on his power. He’d found that some of the inferior ways of other cultures and societies, when used properly, were actually of some benefit. At the moment, he was seated, doing a chakram yoga, pulling in the natural wind force of this planet. It was either ironic or proper, he supposed, that both he and the queen--his direst enemy--shared the same Wind Magic talent. Perhaps it was a mark of leadership. Likely it was a combination of all of these. Then again, the supposed Pillar had mastered the magic of fire and--
Something snapped him out of his meditation as though he’d been punched. Racing out of his tent, he turned his eyes skyward, searching for something that might have been wrong with the world...and perhaps, it just might have been.
She’s here. I can feel her presence, as though the world has grown stronger. Maybe it had: looking around, everything seemed to have grown brighter, more real, as though a great convocation had just come upon the world, a Grand Blessing that had just added a facet of reality that had never been seen by human eyes. Unbeknownst to him, a strange look came on his face, a glance that was somewhere between awestruck at the wake of the Pillar’s arrival, and disgust at literally the whole world rejoicing at the arrival of such a sham of a figurehead.
His statuesque skyward gaze did not go unnoticed. Several of his troops saw his actions, and the murmurs began, hinting of battles and glory to come. Most of them, seasoned veterans from earlier conflicts even before their arrival on Cephiro, tried to quell the hubbub amongst the newer recruits, all either Cephirans or Autozamians who sympathized with the cause. Despite all of this, the rumors spread faster than a brushfire in a haystack, and within minutes, one of the platoon commanders soon found himself at Daimler’s side, questing for information.
“Can you not see the new day?” Daimler asked his subordinate. “It is a new day for the leadership, a new day for our New Regime. We are convincing the local populace of the truth, and they are now flocking to our cause. We are becoming more powerful, and we now have the chance to engage our enemy in full.”
“I do not understand, sir,” the field officer commented.
“What he means,” a shadowy figure said as he moved next to Daimler, “is that the Grand Witch has arrived. Their ‘goddess’, or at least one that is supposed to be a goddess here. In fact, she’s nothing more than a common girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Worse, she’s of inferior stock. She’s a disease that needs to be excised, and we’re here to do that, isn’t that correct, Daimler?”
“Spoken like a true hero,” Daimler said to the newcomer as he dismissed the field officer. Turning to face him in full now, he gave a terse, single order: “Report.”
The stranger spoke. “They’ve completely accepted me, sir. They think I’m one of them, a native, and a patriotic one at that. I have the complete confidence of my ‘superiors’.”
“Good, good,” murmured Daimler, hand on his chin in thought. “Have you discovered the optimal points for your operation?”
“Yes, sir. The queen and several members of her staff are not viable targets at this time, as they are highly capable of defending themselves and don’t present enough of a window of opportunity to attack. However, there are still several choice targets that we might be capable of. And if that doesn’t work, we do have our last-ditch options.”
“Well, come with me, my agent,” Daimler said as he pointed the way to his private tent. “I have some extra information for you that might be of assistance. Queen Fuu and her troops are getting reinforcements.”
“Which was the next thing I was about to tell you,” the spy offered. “I have reports that indicate the Pillar is on the way.” Daimler nodded his agreement, and was about to comment that he already knew as well, when Jetta came running, bearing a folder in her hands.
“Lord Daimler! Great news! The OPEL has found the whereabouts of the Pillar!”
“So you felt her arrival too, Jetta?”
“I think all of us who wield magic felt her arrival.”
“Well, if you know where she is, I want the OPEL to dispatch two full combat groups to deal with her. Make sure that one our own is in charge--actually, send Berlina out to deal with them. I want the Pillar eliminated before she becomes involved in the situation here, since her presence might rally this collection of scum. Oh, and when she is killed, make sure that Queen Fuu is made aware of it. I want the Cephirans to know that there is nothing that can save them, nothing at all.” Turning back to his agent, he asked, “So, shall we get back to the business of espionage and sabotage?”
Hikaru’s eyes glittered with tears, as she and her companions stood in the center of the coastal town of Sephia.
Or rather, what was left of it.
The town was a total ruin. Crushed by the remains of one of the crystal air islands as it had fallen on the surface, the people had had little time to escape the catastrophe. Makeshift graves were littered around the ruins of homes and buildings, and there was not a sign of survivors having stayed. Whoever managed to make it out of the wreckage of Sephia were now amongst Cephiro’s first war refugees.
“All those people....” Hikaru murmured sadly, her voice choking. “Last time I was here, the people threw me a big party, even though I didn’t want one. They insisted, because I was their heroine....” The look on her face was as torn as the one she had at the aftermath of the events at Fujikyu. “A little girl, about Akama’s age...she gave me flowers, because it was the only thing she could give me.” Hikaru raised a hand and pointed at a small mound. “She’s buried right there. I can feel it.”
The others said nothing. They couldn’t understand what Hikaru was going through right now, though they could all sense the pallor of death, the needless ending of life.
“The crystal...it was shot down...brought down on them without so much as a second thought. Why? I thought I was the target, but this...this is unconscionable!” Hikaru turned to hold Ranma closer to her, but stopped at the last second, shivering with pain and anger. “They’re monsters, all of them. Anyone who can wantonly obliterate a peaceful town like this is nothing less than a monster,” she said, sinking to the ground. She punched the ground once, tears flowing down her face. “Monsters, all of them....”
Ranma moved to her side in an instant. “We’ll deal with them, love. We’ll make sure they’ll never do anything like this again. If you and I have to do it ourselves even--which we won’t--we’ll teach them a lesson.” Ranma knew that all the others would stand beside them, and that no matter what, he would be at Hikaru’s side if she needed him.
“You can start now,” Michael said all of a sudden. “Someone’s coming.” As the sound of footsteps began to sound louder, Michael snapped his fingers, and out of nowhere a pair of blue-steel Tec-10s appeared in his hands, the pistol-sized autorifles fully armed and ready to fly. As he did so, Satoru and Kuno unsheathed their katanas, while Ukyo brought her battlespat to the ready. Shiki and Ryoga began to unwind, ready for physical combat, while Nabiki moved over to protect Kuu.
Eventually the horse rode into view, its riders completely unfamiliar to them. The horse was a mustang likely of the Ford breed, the white and orange dappled steeds that were the equal to the Earth’s own Arabian breed. It was dressed in light armor, and bearing the livery of the Cephiran Guard vice the colors of the Army. It was a beautiful animal, and the speed it raced towards the group at one time would have been considered beautiful, had the situation not become tense.
“See the rider, Tseng?” Kuno asked. “I cannot speak of her beauty, though I know it is a she, but I do see that she bears a weapon of steel, and she comes riding for war.”
“Then she can stand to take a few rounds,” Michael said, his body tensed in readiness for a fight. “But let see what she does first. She might be searching for survivors, or a scout for whoever runs this joint.”
“Or she could be out hunting for enemy troops and mistake us for some,” Satoru noted. “Still, pretty stupid of her to do so, coming by herself. Not good tactics at all.”
“No, that’s the norm,” Hikaru said, getting back to her feet and kissing Ranma on the cheek with a comment of “Thanks, anata.” Turning back to her friends, she explained, “Before we Magic Knights came around, it was normal for powerful mages and fighters to travel solo. Anything normal could be dealt with, and war was a rarity. Sadly, those times have changed.”
Finally, the rider arrived amongst the Nerima group. Appearing to be about the same age as Hikaru, the stranger bore a regal bearing that spoke of someone raised as an aristocrat. She had a long, thick mane of black hair and her eyes were a beautiful, hypnotic shade of deep blue. Her features showed a proud, perhaps haughty beauty, something enhanced by the alluring and athletic figure she had. Although she was dressed in the pseudo-Arabic style of Chizetamian fashion, the armor and rapier she carried were clearly of Cephiran origin. Lastly, perched on her shoulder, was a fairy that bore a likeness to Primera--a sister, perhaps?
“Ho, good people,” the woman replied in an imperious voice that implied she knew exactly how much farther they were down on the totem pole than she was. “Make way for Cephiran Guard. I’m here to see if there are any survivors other than you and....” She paused, looking at the collection of people before her, some of them armed, certainly all of them dangerous. “You’re not from this town, are you?” she inquired, as though it were some great sacrifice to talk to the commoners before her. “You must be from afield.”
“Yeah, we’re not from around here,” Ranma answered, somewhat annoyed by her tone. “We’re from, um, slightly farther from here.”
“Oh?” The woman looked at Ranma...then looked again, slightly more appreciatively. Seeming to appraise him and his well-built form, she softened her tone: “Perhaps you can tell me more about it, later, once I finish my mission here. Are you new to these parts? There seems to be a lot of innocent people fleeing the war.”
Minica, seated on the woman’s shoulder, knew the woman well enough. Taking the time to whisper in her ear, she said, “Onnesama, shouldn’t we concentrate on whatever you have to do right now? Now is not the time for chasing boys.” Minica didn’t expect an answer; she knew that in cases like this, the Voice of Reason would always be ignored.
Likewise, this was also noticed on the Nerima side. “Here we go again,” Ukyo sighed to herself, while Nabiki gave her a knowing, sympathetic look. Ryoga, Kuno, and--though no one noticed it, Michael--had slightly bemused looks on their faces. Satoru, Shiki and Kuu, unaware of the history of the Nerima group to a large degree, merely found the girl’s change of attitude startling. Hikaru, still the trusting type to a degree, was giving the woman the benefit of the doubt--or rather, her husband; unlike previous relationships she’d been in, she knew she could trust Ranma totally. However, Hikaru had a feeling of déjà vu when it came to these two, as if they were familiar to her. Ranma was in his natural element; that is to say, he was completely and utterly clueless.
Having her sights set, the rider moved her horse over by Ranma, extending her hand and cooing suggestively to him, “Would you care to help a noblewoman down, kind sir?” Ranma, having learned a bit of courtesy over the years, did assist her, and fell deeper into her trap. “Thank you kind sir,” she replied, leaning into him, as the fairy decided to lift off from her shoulder. “Such gallantry is to be rewarded.” With that, she leaned towards him for a kiss. Ranma, at this time, finally realized what was going on, and with a look on his face that hadn’t been seen in years, he was hoping that Hikaru didn’t have a mallet handy.
“Laying it a bit thick, isn’t she?” Ukyo murmured to Nabiki.
“Well, at least she’s marginally more subtle than Shampoo was. Marginally,” Nabiki replied. “Wonder if I should bail my little brother out of this?”
“No, Nabiki, that’s my job.” There was only so much that Hikaru was going to stomach; even if she trusted Ranma completely, this woman had crossed the bounds. Stepping between her husband and the noblewoman, she said coolly, “Last time I checked, Cephiran ‘noblewomen’ who serve in the Guard should have enough talent to dismount from a horse themselves, and should have enough class to keep their hands off a married man...especially when his wife is present.”
The warrior reacted as though it was a physical slap. Turning on the proverbial ten-yen piece, she turned to face Hikaru, a sudden, mercurial anger forming in her eyes. “Excuse me, but who are you to talk to me? Do you even know who I am, wench?”
Hikaru crossed her arms, a fiery glitter forming in her eyes. “No, I don’t know who you are, and as for me, well, you might be surprised who I am.”
“As far as I can tell, you’re just an uppity peasant with a flair for wearing Fahrenjin clothing--though I wonder how a commoner like you could have ever afforded to visit Fahren. And since you must be educated as to who I am,” the woman snarled at Hikaru as though she were nothing more than a first-grader, “I am the Lady Ryuuzaki Hikaru, Water Squire of Cephiro, daughter of his lordship Lantis and her ladyship Ryuuzaki Umi, Water Knight of Cephiro. My companion is my younger sister, the Lady Minica, daughter of his lordship Lantis and her ladyship Primera.” Getting right into Hikaru’s face, the woman snarled, “Now then, woman, tell me who you are.”
Giving the woman an angry look, Hikaru managed to snarl back, “I, young woman, am the Fire Knight Commander of Cephiro and the Pi--who did you say you are?!??!?” Hikaru’s eyes grew wide with shock as what the other woman said sank in. Kamisama--that’s why she looks so familiar! For although the hair and eye color were different, it was the face of Ryuuzaki Umi that stared right back at Hikaru through this woman her age. “You...you can’t be who you say you are. It-it-it’s impossible!”
“What’s impossible? That you should face actual Cephiran nobility, madwoman? And as for your credentials, you couldn’t be the Fire Knight if you were wearing her actual clothing! The Knight Commander is a pure noblewoman’s noblewoman, a shining example to the world and not a piece of farm trash! Furthermore, the Knight Commander happens also to be the Pillar of this world, our goddess, and not some sniveling, whiny brat like you!”
“Well whatever you’ve heard about the Pillar is wrong. I’m the Pillar, and I’m not some innocent, sweet, naïve thing,” Hikaru snarled. Regardless of who this woman was--and the thought of this girl being the child of Umi being a total impossibility in her mind--she was going to learn some manners. Now. “Now stay away from my husband, you little snipe, or I will persona--”
Hikaru’s uncharacteristic display of anger, however, was suddenly interrupted as blasts of energy ripped in the space next to Hikaru and the woman who seemed to bear the same name. Bolts of verdant power splashed all around them, some within centimeters of the pair. Not taking the time to erect magical shields, everyone began to dive for cover as more fire ripped into the surrounding area.
As everybody scrambled for cover, Michael roared, “Targets inbound. Looks like they’re on horses, but the horses look...mechanical, like some sort of robots or something.” There was another onslaught of energy, followed by the inhuman dying scream of the newcomer’s horse being blasted into so much bloody chunks not far from where they all were. Not allowing himself to be distracted by the grisly event, he continued to report: “It looks like they’ve got some rather unorthodox weapons with them.” With that, Michael leapt into view and opened fire, dropping about five of the riders and diving back behind the nearest building as several opened fire on him, slicing the air where he’d just been.
Kuu yelped, as arrows perforated the wooden structure within an arm’s reach of where she hid. “We’re in trouble now!”
“An attack force, and looks like they were looking for someone,” Ukyo shouted as energy beams raced past her shelter. “Bet a thousand yen I know who, too.” A volley of arrows came racing towards her, but with a speed borne of anger she whipped out her battle-spat and swept the projectiles aside with a vicious ease.
“Guess I’d better protect you all.” Without expecting anyone to be capable, the Cephiran warrior raised her hand and chanted, “Fusetsu Boheki!” From out of nowhere, and despite the relative warmth, a snowstorm-like hurricane began to coalesce around the general area, blocking out the energy beams. “There. That should hold away the fire for a bit, but it’s not going to last forever.”
“It’ll last long enough,” Ranma commented, looking somewhat pissed and cracking his knuckles. “Well, I think I need some exercise for the day.” Turning to Nabiki, he said, “Sis, find defensive positions for all of you. Satoru, Kuno, Michael, make sure everyone’s safe. Ryoga, Ucchan, care to join me?”
Ryoga smiled from under his mop of dark hair. “Since when did I stay out of a fight?”
“I’d follow you anywhere, Ranchan,” Ukyo piped in.
Shiki leapt instantly to Ranma’s side. “Hey, I’m a martial artist, too! You aren’t leaving me out of this one!” Ranma, already having his attention on the inbound troublemakers, merely gave a terse nod. Figuring there was going to be more dissent, Ranma looked at his brothers-in-law, and the look in his eyes was simple: protect Hikaru and Nabiki. Faced with that, the pair decided not to argue for going with him.
The whole situation did not go unnoticed by either of the Hikarus. Turning to Ranma, they both exclaimed, “Hey, I’m the one in charge here!” Both realized what they’d said, hmphed, and went back to their ill-timed staring contest.
Nabiki grabbed both women and said, “Ladies, pissing contests are for men, okay? You can be bitchy later.” Turning to her sister-in-law, she clarified, “Leave it to Ranma--he's done this before. I don’t care how much experience you have with these things here, but I do know that they were aiming at one of you two. Therefore, we’re getting you out of here--or would you care for another uncomfortable hospital stay?”
Saotome Hikaru initially planned to protest, but saw the concerned look in Nabiki’s eyes and deferred. “Yes, Nabiki-nesama.” The look in the redhead’s eyes was a mixture of indignation, anger and worry...and a realization that her sister-in-law was probably right.
Meanwhile, the other Hikaru looked appreciatively at Ranma and murmured, “So his name is Ranma. A name as wonderful as he is, and a name that’s pure poetry of the heart. I wonder if--”
“’Wonder’ nothing,” Nabiki said, her eyes flashing with annoyance. “That there happens to be my brother and he and Hikaru here are happily married. And if you do anything to try to disturb that balance, I will personally take that sword of yours and demonstrate on you a few uncomfortable places to have it lodged. Get my drift?” The woman, seeing that Nabiki was serious, said nothing and decided to go along with this rabble for the moment. Minica, still sitting on the warrior’s shoulder, decided it would be much safer hiding in the pouch at the soldier’s side, and so dived in.
“The rest of you guys stay put now,” Ranma said. “Ryoga, Ukyo, Shiki, let’s go.” With that, the three walked out of the safety of the snowstorm barrier and towards the enemy contingent.
“Remember, Ranma,” Kuno called out to his brother-in-law, “The Vengeance of Heaven is sure and swift!”
Satoru turned to his friend. “Tatewaki, do you always have to say that?”
Kuno shrugged. “Well, my dear friend, I daresay that as a motto, it’s much more elegant than ‘kick ass and take names.’ Besides, is it not our position as men of the blade to give the proper speech of war?”
Nabiki, from where she stood, groaned. “Kuno-baby, I hate to rain on your parade, but can you worry about writing battle sonnets later?” Not expecting an answer, she sighed and said, “C’mon, you guys. Let’s go get some ringside seats. Kuu, did you bring some popcorn?”
“Why on Earth would I need to bring that?” Kuu asked, puzzled, gazing at the pack of supplies she was carrying.
“Well, they just pissed off my little brother, and no one ever gets away with that,” Nabiki said, a wicked gleam in her eyes. “As the Americans say, ‘You’re about to witness the Greatest Show On Earth.’”
A group came riding in on mechahorses, the cybernetic steeds moving as fast as the wind. Each man carried electrolances, the wrist weapons capable of use either as a sword or an energy weapon. The group of five, though dressed mainly in the technowear of Autozamian military, now additionally wore the markings of the Vanden Plaz. There initially had been about fifty of them, racing in ahead of the secondary group, which was three-hundred strong. The front group, now realizing that the element of surprise was lost, set up magical and energy barriers to deal with the situation. One of the men called out, “Call the convoy and tell them it’s only a small group, not an army. We can deal with--”
He never finished his sentence.
At the far back of the convoy, standing atop a futuristic looking tank, stood a woman wearing a clothing that looked somewhere in between a jockey’s uniform and something the Beatles rejected for the cover of the “Sgt. Pepper” album. Her colors were a mix of shimmering, silky blue and silver, and she looked too young to be involved with this military group. She had in her hand a telescope that looked almost like a microphone, as though she was going to do a musical number atop the tank. She had long, flowing brown hair and matching eyes, and there was a cuteness to her, as though she was the essence of the Japanese word “kawaii”.
At her side an older man, dressed in the clothing of a senior noncom, addressed her. “Lady Berlina--”
Berlina paused, her countenance sad and looking very unnatural for her. “Must Daimler call me that?”
“Yes, commander. He has trouble pronouncing your natural name, I presume. In any event, we are approaching the location where they believe the Pillar to be.”
“The Pillar?” Berlina asked. “I thought we were here to deal with a band of Cephiran military.” Suddenly, she dropped her telescope. Frustrated, she bent over to pick it up...
…and just narrowly avoided a massive onslaught of azure energy tearing into her forces, scorching soldiers, setting tanks ablaze and detonating mass amounts of weapons, not to mention totally sowing chaos and disorder.
Ranma couldn’t believe it. He’d charged himself up for cutting loose with a typical blast of ki, but what had erupted from his palms was nothing normal. The resulting force that launched from his palms was a hundredfold stronger than anything he had ever thrown before, as a massive beam about the thickness of a school bus rocketed forward, evaporating anything in its path. The sky was lit up with a massive flash of blue light, and for a second or two, it seemed that all there was of the whole world was sky blue.
As the azure light cleared away, there was a wide, scorched swath where several of the enemy used to be. In fact, although Ranma was not aware of this, there had been close to a hundred units that now no longer existed after his attack.
All he could do was to look at his hands and say with a Keanu Reeves-like grace, “Whoa.”
From where she sat, Saotome Hikaru’s
eyes widened in abject shock. He just fired something more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen.
Even when the three of us used the power of Grand Rayearth, we couldn’t
come up with anything like that! She
looked at her sister-in-law, and Nabiki had totally facefaulted.
Part of Hikaru’s mind wondered, If
willpower runs the world here, and willpower is the basis of ki...then I’ve
just brought a serious arsenal to Cephiro. Hikaru looked at the perplexed man who was staring at his hand
and wondered how he’d done that, just as she’d done so long ago when she’d
first arrived. Oh, Ranma, I know how you feel, anata.
I really, truly do.
“The kami bless us....” Nabiki whispered, as she stared as dumbfoundedly as Hikaru was. Her mind was unable to believe, even after seeing what she’d just witnessed. She knew the facts, that in a battle against Saffron, Ranma had literally carved the top of Mt. Quanjing to save Akane; that had been second-hand info. This, this however, was a truth that stared her right in the face, the true, terrible power that her brother had at her fingertips. In all the times that she’d known him, she felt suddenly glad that she’d never pissed him off past the point of no return. It was bad enough that she’d seen the metaphorical barrel of a gun before. She now realized that gun was no sidearm, but the 16-inch barrel of a battleship’s cannon. A second later, another thought came to her: Ranma said I’m capable of the same things he is and I’ve always hoped that I could be half as good. But after seeing that, do I really want to be?
As for the others, they had no comment to Ranma’s attack. They stood there, frozen like statues, each as unbelieving as the martial artist had been.
“Whatever they have, we want it!” Berlina screamed, channeling her own power. “Do what you have to stop them!” Her hands began to glow with unusual energies, one red, one blue. Clapping them together, she shouted, “Return fire! Chain Force!” and a blast of two beams, rolling between each other like links of chain, roiled towards Ranma, pulsing down the same barren path of destruction that the first had done, quite a bit ago. Turning to a nearby subordinate who’d managed to survive the initial assault, she hollered, “Call for reinforcements! These aren’t ordinary troops!”
Berlina looked into the distance and the growing clouds of smoke and fire and thought, I wonder who’s trapping who.
The blast jolted Ranma back to consciousness. The dual-phase blast that Berlina counterattacked with headed straight for Ranma, but managed somehow not to hit him, the martial artist having somehow managed to be in the center of one of the “links”. The twin ribbons of energy continued past him, slamming against the Blizzard Wall, shuddering and threatening to destroy it.
“Kuso,” Ranma snarled, as he realized what the hell was going on. The remainder was still coming in, and it was going to get messy. Though almost all of the tank-thingies had been totaled, the horseback riders were not, and they were still incoming. “Okay guys, this is it!” Ranma called out, his voice full of confidence.
“Let’s hit ‘em!” Ryoga echoed.
“No mercy!” Shiki agreed.
“I’m with you, Ranchan!” Ukyo shouted back.
As one, the four fighters roared into combat, against ridiculous odds, in a battle that under most circumstances would have been unfair…
…for the other side.
Ryoga dived into the first bunch that came towards him, his anger coming to the front. “You’re not gonna get away from me! BAKUSAI TENKETSU!" He slammed his fist to the ground, and the earth warped, woofed, and finally shattered and burst heavenward, taking loam, rocks, dirt, and other such items as the world began to explode around the immediate vicinity. Bodies scattered all over the place, some aching in pain, some mercifully unconscious, but most likely never to utter a single word ever again.
Dodging several attacks that came his way from the next group, Ryoga leapt up to his earlier position before the next group of the adversary's host could skewer him with their weapons. He ran off in an unusual direction, looking for a second as though he were racing away from the battle, but was, in truth, maneuvering to attempt a new attack, one he’d been working on.
Beginning a charge and aiming for a bunch of people rushing towards him, Ryoga went into a charging fist attack, barreling through them. Leaping into the air, he spun around with a grace not attributed to him and roaring, “SHI SHI HOKODAN!” cut loose with a golden beam of ki as sizable as Ranma’s. There was no way for the soldiers to get out of the way, and so they were caught in the path of an enormous column of ki, which had the effect of a drill catching flies on the way while drilling down several meters into the ground.
Landing, some sort of mechanical robot thing out of a bad anime fired on him, dropping to his knees. Ryoga shrugged it off, looked at the thing with dark, murderous intent and said under his breath, “Real bad move.” Fist cocked and ignoring the fire coming his way from the thing, he applied a charging fist, then as it connected, spun, elbowed him, and closed it out with a devastating uppercut that shattered both the robot and the ground it stood on.
As more of them closed in on him, swarming like unintelligent, wild insects, he taunted them, “Okay, which of you moving scrapheaps is next?”
“Gurenken!” Shiki’s strike hit as intended, her assault laying down a few hundred hits against one heavily armored opponent. As he fell to the ground with a painful thud, she bypassed him, only to come up against another, who was drawing a bead on her with some sort of bizarre bow-and-arrow weapon. He seemed to move as swift as a sparrow, drawing the bow and loosing it, sending the blast of magic her way.
It was a good thing, though, that Shiki was faster. Much faster. Moving at a speed her attacker couldn’t even dream of, she dived forward as he attacked, and moving into position, she leapt skyward, using yet another of her family’s secret attacks, the Reichi Sambyakujin Sho. The attack involved her performing a reverse flying uppercut while creating ki-clones of herself, long enough for each to slam painfully into the target. She did so, and the fifteen clones did so, and what resulted from the attack was not going to be in operation anytime soon.
Landing from her attack, she felt someone take a punch at the back of her head. She kippupped immediately and noticed she was surrounded by dozens of attackers. Not even bothering to acknowledge the throng, she grabbed the nearest one’s arm, and using it like a balancing beam, flipped over him, taking the arm and yanking it out of its socket. She them slammed him to the turf, and, charging up her ki, applied a palm strike that would ensure that he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.
Ki still blazing like a beacon, she rocketed towards the next one in the line of fire. He charged forward, igniting some sort of energy sword with the intent of skewering her, but he hadn’t counted on her speed. Moving with an agility that would make a yoga master envious, she bounded over his head, landed behind him, then went into buzzsaw mode, throwing more kicks and punches than at a professional wrestling match. Bodies fell before her as she moved on.
Why aren’t these guys giving up? she asked herself. Are they so blind to know when they’re dealing with someone much better than they are? An arrow whizzed closely past her head--too close--and that was all the answer she needed. These guys are total idiots! Well, time to educate the masses.
Setting her mind back to the matter at hand, she concentrated and loosed her projectile attack, wondering if it was going to be as strong as Saotome-san’s. He was proving to be far more talented than she had ever expected, and his friend, Hibiki-san, was almost as good. In fact, the girl had to grudgingly admit that both of their talents were as far ahead of hers as a PC was above an abacus. However, she was beginning to notice that they had the exact same moves as her family did--secret moves that had been passed down through generations. Were they distant relatives, or did somehow along the way their families learn those moves from an ancestor of hers?
“Unsanmushodama!” The blast, unlike normal, did not disappear, but instead became a snarling, writhing ball of energy that bolted forward, warping the air as it blazed past. Slamming into the nearest of her victims, it spread out like a net, catching several in its electrical throes before exploding, turning into an incandescent ball of bioenergy, a plasma-like burst that electrocuted everything in its path.
Shiki didn’t have time to pat herself on the back, as another batch of soon-to-be-downed-opponents moved in. Muttering under her breath, “These guys just don’t learn,” she charged them, determined to teach the morons that nothing was going to withstand the Nijorono School of Freestyle Shotokan.
Like a farmer mowing down waves of grain, Ukyo swept her battle spatula back and forth swatting away anything in her path. Between that and her bandoleers of minispats, she was using every attack in her arsenal to try to stay alive. She was over her head in this situation, but she came because all she had in this world--or any other--was Ranma. She’d never stopped loving him since the day she was reunited with him, and though she was destined to only be his best friend, she would be damned before she would ever leave his side. His family was hers in a surrogate way, and she was lucky, she guessed, that Hikaru was rather understanding of her situation; despite her friendship with Akane, Ukyo doubted that she would have ever been lucky enough to be as close with Ranma as she was now.
Reaching towards her bandoleer, she came up empty; a quick look indicated that she'd flung her last volley, and that left her with only the battlespat. If that was destroyed, she was left only to hand-to-hand, and that was her weak point. There was movement to her left. She turned, pushed her opponent back, and swung her battlespat for all it was worth.
Unfortunately, he caught it and yanked it out of her hands before kicking her in the face and sending her down to the ground in a mess. Taking it in both hands, he snapped it like kindling wood, then raised his wrist to fire his armgun. Ukyo, not wanting to die anytime soon, leapt forward, grabbed and spun the combatant. She slammed her elbow into the man's chest, levered her fist to nail him in the jaw, and then finished it up with a quick uppercut, which sent the defeated opponent sprawling back.
There was no sound from the man, other than a harsh, guttural laugh. He took off the arm gun, tossed it away, then charged her, fist at the ready. Ukyo spun with lightning speed as she punched forward, letting some sort of instinct guide her, hoping that she could last. Because at this rate, she wasn’t going to.
A fist raked the side of her head, causing a burst of a million shards of light in her head as she fell to the ground. No sooner than she hit it than she was kicked in the ribs, knocking the air out of her. She heard the man’s laughing above her, and he spoke in a language that she could not understand. She really didn’t need to; she understood that he was going to beat the shit out of her if she didn’t do something, and quick.
Something snapped in her, and she leapt up, kicking him skyward. About several hundred times. With a speed borne of desperation, she began to move with a pace that she’d never done before, landing blow after blow. Still using her okonomiyaki moves, she was just closing in at point-blank range and pounding this guy with everything that he had been giving her.
An elbow smash turned into a backhanded punch turned into a spinning cycle of punches, which moved into a faster and faster combination of punches and kicks, each attack moving far faster than she’d ever been able to accomplish. Finally, the guy left her an opening, and she took it. Moving towards a gut punch, she thrust hard.
The resulting explosion of white ki turned the man into a makeshift bonfire, waves of coruscating power running up and down his body until he fell to the ground, painfully downed. As he connected with the earth noisily, Ukyo looked at herself and the glowing aura of white ki that had enveloped her body, something that had never happened before. At no time in her life had she ever been able to manifest the mystic energies within the human body, and here she was, holding it now as though it was apologetic for taking so long to come out of her body.
She grinned like a kid with a new toy. “Sugoi!” She enjoyed her newfound skills long enough before the next group waded in, forcing her to use them.
There was such a force as speed on Cephiro, something that everything held to one degree or another. Then there were higher speeds that most creatures couldn’t attain without some sort of assistance or mechanical means. This speed was generally reserved for those who had some sort of manner to access it. Of course, it went without much comment that there was a speed reserved for a person like Saotome Ranma. And at the moment, every opponent that he came across was likely regretting that he’d ever moved with such a silky, effortless ability, a myriad of talents that assured that he wasn’t likely going to be hit anytime soon.
Moving like a tiger running through a field of prey, Ranma single-handedly took on waves after waves of enemy forces. Once they realized that out of the four fighters, this was by far the most dangerous, more and more opponents moved in, attempting to cage in the wily young grandmaster of Anything Goes. However, containing Ranma was probably as easy as trying to empty the nearby ocean with only a wooden bowl, just with a far lesser chance of success.
Finishing with the latest dozen who failed to take him down, Ranma engaged the next contingent. Leaping upon on one guy's head, he applied a liberal amount of kicks to his face. As he went down, the martial artist leapt towards another, dived under a powerful sword strike by a guy carrying a massive broadsword. Ranma came up between him and a second person, he continued to pivot, adding one-hit, one-drop attacks to anything that crossed his path.
is getting us nowhere, he realized. The
enemy, now beginning to take note of the eccentric tactics of the Nerima group,
spread out, making it harder for them to take out groups. If they kept this up, he thought as he neatly clipped a man
taking aim at him with some disc-shaped gun, sooner or later, the Nerima group
was going to lose due to being worn down, and that meant they were all going to
be slaughtered. No way in hell am I going to let that happen.
Ranma parried a spear strike by one
soldier, then upended him and went and taught him the meaning of pain, namely: “TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!” Not
surprisingly, all his strikes hit, pulping the guy and dropping to the floor
injured but still alive. Good.
He’s going to need to be dragged out of here in order to survive
Ranma suddenly had a brilliant idea. It was insane, but it was the quickest way to end this battle, so he could get everyone out of here. They were counting on him to win, and he could hardly let them down. Especially when the lives of some of the most important people on his world were counting on him making it out alive. Closing his eyes, he began to reach into the deepest parts of his body reserves to find the ki that nestled within.
Ranma’s battle aura, already stronger than normal, began to brighten and swell, the intensity of the light growing stronger and stronger with each growing minute. Opening his eyes, he began to focus on each person, feeling their anger, hate, and every negative emotion that was running through them, while trying to filter out his friends. Streams of power began to arc and spark around him, his ki reaching a show of strength unprecedented by him before, as the whole area began to glow with a soft blue haze, and a soft breeze began to rustle in the area.
Facing his opponents, he shouted out, his voice full of seething rage, “Ukyo, Ryoga, Shiki! Hit the floor! The rest of you bastards, take this! SAOTOME SUPER ATTACK! HIRYU SHOTENHA!” Punching an arm into the sky, he released an umbra of power, as waves of ki began swirling in the area, building to within hurricane strength within seconds. The ki-winds increased, and the roar of the vortex sounded not unlike a dragon racing to the stars. Dozens of enemies tried to resist the energy tornado building in their midst, but failed as they wee swept up like so much debris being carried into the sky.
The storm grew more intense, and nature itself seemed to howl in revenge at the wrongs committed against it here in this place. Ranma’s power continued unabated, even as though the attack was stronger, longer, and larger in range than anything he’d ever initiated before in his life. The blasting, searing vortex continued to grow more powerful still, as the cycle of demolition cast further and further out, a hungry beast that devoured any and everything in its path, with nothing to stop it.
Just as the column of energy grew to unbearable proportions, the energy rush beginning to tear at Ranma himself, the attack dispersed, and an epic shockwave thundered across the region, obliterating everything in its path save for the dying Blizzard Barrier, several Japanese martial artists, and one man in the center, screaming out his soul as an energy dragon ascended to heaven on a breeze made of the force of his own willpower.
Hikaru saw the tornado-sized Hiryu Shotenha attack, and knew that for the immediate time, they’d be safe, but not for long. Over the horizon, she could hear the buzz of units racing in this direction, and she was fairly sure they weren’t friendly. In any case, with her friends and family here, she wasn’t willing to make that determination. Worse, the ki-tornado had leveled the Blizzard Barrier, and with as much power that “Hikaru” had pumped into it, there was no way that she’d be able to put one up again. Not that sitting around waiting to be attacked was a fun thing, anyway.
“Nabiki, please round everyone up. We’re getting out of here,” Hikaru said, her voice steel in its tones. “They’ve got reinforcements coming, and they’ll be too much even for Ranma.”
“You sure about that?” Nabiki answered, not willing to argue with Hikaru when she used that tone of voice. For some reason, it sounded too much like Akane’s angry tones, and while she knew Hikaru to be much more levelheaded, she also knew that this was not the time to engage in debate. “Ranma’s perfectly capable of handling large numbers, and the rest of us can still fight, you know.”
“I couldn’t even fight that many,” Hikaru answered, “and I’m the Pillar around here, remember?”
“You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag, you liar,” the other woman named Hikaru seethed. “You’re not worthy of your rather dreamy husband. Is all you can do just to sit there, whimper, and be protected by your sister-in-law?”
Hikaru turned, ready to resort to violence against this impertinent woman, regardless of whom she said her parentage was. Instead, she had a flash of insight, and smiled cattily, so much so that Nabiki could have sworn the redhead turned into a mythical neko-onna for a second. Concentrating on everyone, she said, “You want to see the Pillar in action?” Whirls of fire began to encircle everyone, and they all grew concerned until they saw Hikaru as the center of it, a bright sun surrounded by forming planets in a primal star system. “Okay, your wish is granted.”
Hikaru looked to the west, snapped her fingers, and...
“They’re gone?” Berlina blinked, seeing the sudden absence of battle. She’d been very lucky, having been knocked off her command vehicle, because there was really nothing left now. Her force of over 500 combatants and armor was laying in a wide swath, shattered, destroyed and demolished. From what she could tell, she was literally the only person capable of standing up at the moment. There was an enormously scarred, blackened crater that they were all in, the crater having earlier been a beautiful seaside plain. That crater was now sufficiently deep enough to create a new bay, if a strong enough rainstorm came by.
The questions on her mind remained unanswered; she doubted that anyone else was alive to be able to come up with some sort of answer anyway. It didn’t matter much, as the majority of the people here were local troops, and not those that had been brought back from the homeworld. If what Citroen reported before her death was true, the home that she’d known for so long no longer existed, and would be anathema for her.
She looked into the distance, where just a few short seconds ago, a single person, likely male, created a magical tornado that had just decimated her forces. She could see now why Daimler devoted such a large team to exterminating this threat to their invasion. If the Cephirans had more like that running around, the forces of Piazzo Nero were not going to be able to last at all against such an onslaught.
“Ow! Hikaru!” Nabiki, unlike the first time, had not landed as comfortably. “Next time, warn me, okay?”
Hikaru looked around at the newest surroundings. It was a grand hall, with extremely high flying buttresses, ornate ceilings and columns, expensive marbled floors, and the finest of rugs. At one end of the hall was a raised dais, with a pair of ornate thrones. The room seemed to glitter with an ethereal light, and there was the softest hint of music playing gently throughout the surroundings.
“We’re amongst the halls of heaven,” Kuno replied, a note of awe in his voice.
“No, we’re in the Throne Room at Cephiro Palace,” Kuu replied, looking around at the familiar surroundings.
“RANMA!” Realizing the danger was over, Hikaru raced over to her husband, glomping him and laying a fierce kiss on him. “DON’T YOU EVER WORRY ME SICK LIKE THAT AGAIN!” she said as she broke off the kiss. Leaning into his chest, she sobbed, “Don’t play hero for my sake, please. I don’t ever want to lose you.”
All Ranma could do was to hold his wife, not chancing himself to say something and mess up the moment. He had to protect her, he knew that, but what had happened to him out on that battleground was something that he could not easily or even remotely describe. So he merely held his wife close to him, never wanting to let go of her.
“Um, Ranma,” Satoru said, “I really hate to break up the situation right now, but we’ve got company.” Sure enough, dozens of soldiers raced into the hall, all of them ready for a battle. Bearing various weapons and armor, they all had one thing in common: they all looked as though they were not going to take this intrusion standing still. The Nerima group, not wanting to start a fight with the odds as they were and with four of them already winded from battle, was feeling very edgy.
The Cephiran guard with them leapt to her feet, calling out, “All of you, stand down! It’s me, dammit! Stand down!”
They stood down all right, but not at her command. A second voice, a lot more calmly said, “It’s the Water Squire. Go ahead and stand down. I’m sure I’ll be safe.” As the warriors began to file out of the hall, the attention was shifted. “Okay, now that that little episode is done with, I’d like a report. What’s going on here?”
“Your highness,” Ryuuzaki Hikaru said, genuflecting on one knee, “we engaged a substa--”
There was a sound of disapproval in the woman’s voice: “Hichan, what have I told you about preferable protocol in the court?”
The girl got off her knee, attempting to explain, “But Aunt Fuu, these people don’t kno--”
“Fuu-chan?” another voice rang out, unsure and disbelieving. “Is that you?” Saotome Hikaru gently detached from her husband and faced the speaker, even as a gasp came from another person--Kuu.
“Oh, sweet stars...Hikaru-chan? Onnesama?” Across a gulf of marble, three people stared at each other for the first time in years. There was an unknown signal, and the Queen of Cephiro, the Wind Knight raced across the room and into the arms of her best friend and older sister. There was laughter and tears of joy, and her voice broke. “I never thought...I never dreamed I’d ever see you two again!” Turning back to the door from where she came from, she addressed a page commanding him to “get extra seats, and now! The Pillar has arrived! Send news to the people that the Pillar is back! The Fire Knight Commander has returned!” Turning back to the first two, Fuu looked at them, and was stunned by what she saw.
No less shocked were Satoru, Kuu, and Hikaru. Something had happened on this world, something beyond explanation, and that something was known as the ravages of time. Though Fuu had weathered it well, she’d not gone unscathed. She was substantially older now than she’d been last time they’d seen her, and she looked every bit the queen. Though her face still had some of the girlish beauty in it, such loveliness was replaced with a matronly grace that seemed to fit her just as well. A few wrinkles had set in on her face, mainly created by the events of the war, though the crow’s feet and laugh lines were also effects of life. Her hair, though still mainly blonde had streaks of silver in it, and her voice had an older quality to it, one that gave it a rich timbre and lent to a tone of command. “Yes, Hikaru, onnesama, I’ve aged, though it appears that you haven’t as much as me.”
“And why did you?” Hikaru asked, wondering. “This world is run on willpower. You could have stayed young forever, like Emeraude or Clef!”
“Once upon a time, maybe, when Emeraude was still the Pillar. But things have changed now. The nature of this universe depends on the Pillar for support. You’re the Pillar, but you’re from Earth, Hikaru. Thus, the universe changes. A lot of Earth physics that didn’t apply originally to this world now do. And chief amongst them is aging. What’s the date on Earth now?” When Kuu supplied the answer, Fuu smiled wanly. “And to think, I’m only 27. I clearly have not aged well,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “though my physical age now is closer to 44 or so, I believe.” Fuu leaned over and hugged the pair again, still unable to believe that they were here. “Oh, where are my manners? I suppose that you will all need to rest, right? At least until the banquet in your honor tonight.”
Hikaru blushed. “Um, Fuu-chan, I really don’t think--”
“Don’t worry, Hikaru-chan. It’s just our old friends, and a few others I think you should meet. I’m not holding a major holiday for your arrival--the army can’t afford the downtime, even if I thought it was safe to,” Fuu sighed. “But enough of that. I’ll have our chamberlain see you and your friends to your room.” The queen turned to the other Hikaru. “Hichan?”
“Yes, Aunt Fuu?”
“Go down to the combat center and find out if your father and the others are coming in tonight. I’d like them to be here, if they can afford to break away from their current duties. If not, I’d like them to report back as soon as possible.”
Hichan nodded. “Um, Aunt Fuu, wouldn’t you rather have me escort your friend to one of the second-level guestrooms?”
Fuu frowned. “’Second level guestrooms,’ Hichan? They’re a little higher ranking than that, I’m sure. Especially Hikaru and my sister, and in particular Hikaru--if anything, she’s entitled to accommodations better than mine. Besides,” Fuu said, “indulge this old woman and let me see my friends, okay? I’d like some peaceful time before I deal with the war again.”
“Yes, Aunt Fuu.” Apparently thwarted, Hikaru (or Hichan, as they seemed to be calling her around here) walked out of the throne room, trying not to look like she was storming out.
Saotome Hikaru tried hard not to smile. They call her Hichan. Well, better her than me. Turning back to Fuu, she asked, “Second level guestrooms?”
Fuu grinned. “Just a euphemism for military officer’s quarters. You must have done something to get on Hichan’s bad side. She’s got a temper just as bad as her mother.”
Just as bad as her mother was the words that echoed in Hikaru’s mind. Watching the girl walk away, she wondered, Are you really Umi’s daughter? And if that’s the case, why did she name you Hikaru? Unless.... Clearly there was a lot to think about, but right now was probably not the moment. “Yeah, I’ll tell you about it on the way to our rooms, and I’ll introduce everyone to you along the way,” Hikaru said, still feeling a bit uneasy. This was one of the people she’d been closest to in her life, and now there was a gulf between them, far larger than anything Hikaru had imagined. Not to mention with the added baggage of Umi and Lantis--and the girl who apparently really was their daughter. What the hell had happened in the years she was gone?
Umi screamed once more, begging them to stop, to leave him alone. But the torture continued, for both of them, and as they administered beatings to LaFarga once more, they were alternately violating her. The pain and misery that she’d sunk into was so deep and dark, she no longer cared about herself. She wanted her friends safe, and if they’d release her, she would be willing to be whatever they wanted her to be. Camp whore, personal concubine for the officers, whatever. Just to free her friends before they were beaten to death.
Of course, they were never freed from their fate. Nor, tragically, was she. In fact now, she was being forced to satisfy two at once, and a third was getting ready to join in as well. For them, she was nothing more than a toy. For her, she felt nothing anymore, nothing at all, save for the wish that she could sacrifice herself to save her friends, and that she could be at least able to tell her loved ones good-bye. A part of her told her she was going to die, and that Hichan would have to take her place as the Water Knight. Was she ready? Umi didn’t know. There was so many things she didn’t know, and that probably was the worst fate of all.
And as the familiar blockout of pain commenced, she had one, fleeting last thought: would her husband even notice she was gone, much less miss her? Knowing Lantis as she had for all these years, likely not.
“So that’s what happened to me,” Fuu said as she set her cup of tea down. “I’ve had an okay life until now, and I can’t complain about anything. As soon as her lessons are done for the day, you’ll meet my daughter, Altra; and tonight you’ll meet my son.” There was a note of pride in Fuu’s voice and a twinkle in her eyes, something not lost on Hikaru or Kuu. ”Marino is an absolute sweetheart, and the darling of every maiden in the castle--except for Hichan, of course. Personally, I think he’s attracted to either Carina, who’s LaFarga and Caldina’s daughter; or Sintra, who’s Ascot’s child--don’t ask me who her mother is, none of us know, and he’s not telling, either.” The Wind Knight gave her friend an elegant shrug. “Ascot’s tended to stay away from the castle a lot since Umi’s marriage to Lantis. They’re on friendly terms, but it was rough going for the longest time, let me tell you. Sometimes I wonder if their marriage was a good idea.”
Hikaru wanted to ask about that, but held her tongue in check. She reminded herself that she came only to protect her family; seeing Fuu was secondary (though not unimportant) on the list of priorities, and seeing Lantis and Umi was last on that list, say, right after getting her teeth drilled by Mokona, should she ever see that wonderful creature again. Instead, she deferred to Kuu, who joked, “Well, looks like you’ve done quite well for yourself, younger sister--or should I be the one to call you ‘older sister’ now?”
Fuu giggled, then said sincerely, “I’ve missed you two so much, you couldn’t even begin to understand. My life here has been wonderful for the most part, and I have no regrets. But I wish you two would have come to visit in the past...seven? Twenty-six?” Fuu shook her head. “Whatever. But I wish that you would have come more often.”
“Well, I would have,” Kuu admitted, “but I have to hitch a ride with Saotome-san, here.”
“‘Saotome-san?’” Fuu asked. “That guy you were hanging on... is he your husband?”
Hikaru absolutely beamed. “One husband, three kids. I just gave birth to the twins about a week and a half ago, and my older son, Akama, well, he’s just like his father. And just like his birth mother, too.”
Hikaru grinned. “Long story, Fuu-chan. But we’ve got plenty of time.”
Satoru sighed. “I always thought my sister would make her mark on the world. I just never expected it to be quite so literal.”
“And not on another world, ne, Satoru?” Ranma commented, leaning on the balcony, viewing the horizon of the world of Cephiro. “I always thought of my Hikaru-chan as special, but I have to admit, this takes the literal cake.”
“You should be so lucky, Ranma,” Kuno supplied. “Have not I always said that the fair maiden known as the Pigtailed Girl was a goddess amongst goddesses?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Ranma drawled, before turning around to look at the town spread out before him. “But...I can’t help but feeling that whatever we’re up against here, it’s not really going to be that good.”
Ryoga, sitting in the corner for all of this time fairly quiet, looked up, then at his friend. “Man, I hate it when you say that. ‘Cause it usually means something bad’s about to happen.”
Sure enough, they were right. A page came in, dressed in the livery of Cephiro. “Excuse me, sirs, but which of you is Lord Saotome Ranma?”
“Lord?” Ranma asked, while the others held their chuckles.
“Yes, your lordship. You are the spouse of Her Holiness the Pillar and Fire Knight Commander, so you are to be accorded with the utmost respect of respects, your worshipfulness.” The page bowed twice; almost double over. “Your presence is being requested in the third level anteroom, sir.”
The pigtailed martial artist looked at the page with total bewilderment for a few before groaning and saying, “Whatever. Lead the way, then--and none of that ‘sir’ stuff for me...just call me Ranma.” Turning to the others he said, “I’ll just catch you later, guys.” With that, he strolled out.
The minute he left, Satoru announced he had a bad feeling. “Should one of us follow him? I think that other girl--what’s her name--might be up to something. She strikes me as a total she-wolf.” Ryoga and Kuno looked at each other and gave resigned looks. Satoru saw this and couldn’t decipher what was the matter. “Did I miss something, guys?”
Ryoga gave Hikaru’s brother a lazy grin. “Not at all. Y’see, Tatewaki and I are used to this sort of thing. Ranma tends to get himself into situations that are not his fault, but get completely out of control and blamed on him. So, if the current situation works out as usual, Ranma’s in for a whole barrel of problems. And frankly, me, Tatewaki, and Ukyo--when I talk to her--are going to stay out of this. We tend to have the effect of making things worse.”
“I’m sorry,” the man named Alero said to the unconscious form of Presea as several Cephiro soldiers carried away the weaponsmistress. “I’m so, so sorry.” His voice displayed the timbre of someone who regretted ever having said his words. He turned his eyes away, seemingly in shame, though others could think that it was because he’d unintentionally brought low the General of the Cephiran army. He’d just been doing his job at the time, and felt he had to report the bloodied, mangled corpse they found over in Peugeot Canyon, tied to a stake. Despite his close working relationship with Presea, he had no idea that she and Cabrio had been an item, and he hadn’t expected her reaction in the least. He was sure no one had.
Alero tried to look as military as possible under the circumstances, but fell short of it at the moment, mainly due to the blush on his cheeks. He had a fair, almost bishonen look to him, with long wheat-blonde hair and expressively bright hazel eyes that seemed to stand out in his androgynous face. Wearing the crisply tailored uniform of a Cephiran officer, it seemed to not suit him that well--at least to him. Though most people thought he was a native of Cephiro, he was merely just another of the immigrants, and it was a testament to his talents that he’d ended up so high up in the ranks of his new home.
“Is it true?” Hichan came racing into the room alone; for a rarity, her younger half-sister, Minica, was not with her, having chosen to stay in their room and take a nap.
“Oh, hello, Hikaru.”
Alero gave her a pleasant smile; he was attracted to her, but business to
him always came before pleasure, so.... “Cabrio
is dead, and it’s not had the best of effects on the General.”
He sighed. “I wish I’d
known. I would have been less clinical about it.”
“Oh, Aunt Sierra. First she loses her sister and practically becomes her in order to cope, and now she’s lost the only man she’s ever loved.” Alero raised his eyebrow at that; Hikaru was one of the few in the castle who regularly referred to “Presea” by her real name. Though the last couple of statements were important, they were merely filler for the next vital comment: “Who else did they find?”
“A few of the troops that had gone with the king and the others--a tragic waste of such valiant lives, I’m afraid. However, I can safely say that neither the King, Lord LaFarga, or your mother was with them.”
The Water Squire breathed a clear sigh of relief. “I’m worried about my mother,” Hichan admitted, her eyes growing pained. “I’m worried about Uncle Ferio and Uncle LaFarga, too. I’m worried about a lot of things.”
“Well, there was no trace of the others at the site, and surely that’s a good sign, right? I mean, that obviously means that they’re still alive,” Alero noted. “And as for your other worry, we have our forces out there looking for stray fairies that might have survived. The thought of all of them having been wiped out at the massacre is impossible--your sister survived, so why can’t others?”
Hikaru gave Alero a cheerful smile. “Thanks, Alero. You always seem to be able to read my mind. You’re so sweet.” Before he could add another comment, Hichan said, “Well, I have to be going. The queen is holding a banquet in honor of....” She couldn’t get herself to finish the sentence.
“The Pillar? I heard she was back. I’m sorry, though; I’m going to have to miss the party tonight; with Presea down, apparently I’ll have to take up the slack; it’s the least I can do.”
“You’re a total dear, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” She gave him a platonic kiss on the cheek and said, “Well, I’ve got to attend to things now and prepare to snag me the guy of my dreams! Bai bai!” Waving her hand, she strolled out of the war room, headed for her own living quarters.
Alero gently touched the cheek that she’d kissed. Gazing at her receding back, he whispered, “Just a friend, and I wish I could be more for you, Hichan. But fate has a different answer for me.” Turning back to the others in the war room, he got back to the business at hand on a besieged world.
Lantis saw the holographic note with total surprise and amazement.
She was back, after all these years. Hikaru was back. There was a twinkle of joy in his eyes, and he knew that his feelings for her had never gone away, despite his years of a mockery of a marriage to Umi. Despite those twenty-six years of marriage and a fully adult daughter, here he was, acting like he did in his younger days, feeling decades younger than his actual age.
Another saw the note and caught up to him. “Uncle Lantis,” Sintra asked, brushing her hair out of her eyes for a second, “what’s that?”
He turned to Sintra and saw with pride, another of the second generation of fighters that had come to defend Cephiro. Though not having the beastmaster skills that her father had, Sintra was another of the top-notch archers at Cephiro Palace. Personally trained by the queen herself, she was more than a match for Cabrio, though there was no rivalry between the two. “It’s a note from Fuu. She wants us to come back to the Palace tonight. Something major happened.”
Sintra nodded. “Okay. I’ll talk to our lieutenants and let them know that they’re in charge until we get back. Hopefully those bastards won’t choose then to counterattack us. We’re barely holding the city as it is.” From their point, they saw the village and farmlands of Demio, half burning and destroyed while their forces were trying to contain the Vanden Plaz from advancing on them. They’d lost three towns so far, including the sizable garrison at Vauxhall, and the only thing they could claim as victory was that they’d learned the enemy’s name, finally. Why they were invading, what had happened to Cephiro’s allies, and other such questions were still unanswered, intangible fragments of truth still unreachable by even Guru Clef.
Lantis gave her a grim nod, seeing her father’s features in her face, and wondering what would have happened if Umi had married Ascot as they’d all expected her to--before their mistake. She’d’ve probably been happier, he thought with a dark grimace, but there’s little chance of that happiness now.
“Someone get her out of the kitchen,” the lead chef wailed.
“But sugar, I’m just checking things out,” Ukyo commented, as she wandered around the kitchens, inspecting them as though she commanded them. “Think of it as professional courtesy. You’ve never had an Earth chef like me in your kitchens before, right?”
“No, madame, but,” the chef, a chubby man with a thin why mustache moaned. He was dressed in a tan baker’s gear, and had the effect of reminding Ukyo of a talking takoyaki ball. “But your ladyship--”
“Ukyo,” she corrected. “Just Ukyo.”
“--Lady Ukyo,” the chef said, not missing a beat, “it’s just not done. It’s not normal for the nobility to deal with us here in the kitchens.”
“Nobility? Me? Hah! I’m just a normal girl from southern Japan whose main things in life are okonomiyaki and Saotomes.”
“What’re those?” one of the assistant chefs asked, and was rewarded via a harsh glare from the tubby lead chef.
Ignoring the ball of lard in the baking suit next to her, she addressed the assistant chef. “Well, they’re just the two best things in the world, in my opinion. I can’t show you one right now, but I can sure show you the other,” she said with a smile. Daintily shoving aside the lead chef, she made a beeline for one of the bakery tables, ordering the scullery boys and assistants to get her several ingredients and dozens of other things that she’d need. Within minutes, she started, much to dismay of the lead chef, a culinary revolution in Cephiran dining.
Lady Kuonji Ukyo, Companion to the Pillar, smiled happily. For the moment, she was in her element.
Minica looked at Hichan, while sitting on a small box on the Water Squire’s desk in her rooms at the Palace. “Hikaru-nechan, maybe you should give up this once. After all, there’s other guys on this world, and he does seem to be spoken for.” The fact that the fairy used the woman’s given name meant that she was serious about what she said. “He seems to belong to that other Hikaru.”
Hichan watched herself as she brushed her hair in the mirror. “But Minica, if you could only understand...my heart...I’ve never felt like this before,” she said, her voice distant and dreamy. “It’s like I woke up from a long sleep, and his face was the light of the sun, bringing me to new sensations.” She whispered his name: “‘Ranma’...it sounds just so poetic.” She looked at herself in the mirror. “I’ve...never really been in love before, Minica. But I think I am, now.”
Minica rolled her eyes; she knew trying to talk her older half-sister out of being boy-crazy was just about as easy as trying to become human-sized herself--it wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. “But that redhead--Hikaru--she’s married to the guy, it seems. And to boot, it sounded to me like she’s a friend of your mother’s. In fact, if I’m guessing right, you were named after her,” Minica pointed out. “Shouldn’t that tell you something, Hichan?”
The Water Squire shook her head. “No, I’m afraid not, dear little sister, not after such a plain woman like that. I was named after Shidou Hikaru, the Pillar, the Fire Knight Commander and the closest friend that my mother ever had, not that peasant girl that was with my Ranma.”
“Onnesama, haven’t you been listening to Aunt Fuu? That woman is Shidou Hikaru--the Pillar. She’s the one.”
“You’re joking, Minica. You have to be. If she were, she’d bring my mother back. If Aunt Fuu was telling the truth about how close they were, Mama would be with us here and now.” There was a lost look of melancholy to Hichan’s eyes at the mention of her mother, and Minica saw that. Minica fought back a wave of overpowering sadness herself. She’d managed to keep that sorrow from her mind herself, and though her own mother was dead, at least Umi was not...that they were aware of, at any rate. This in turn brought another wave of sorrow: the Water Knight was as good a stepmother to her as Primera had been a mother.
Hichan looked at Minica and rhetorically asked, “I wonder if I’ll ever see my mother again?” Tears were welling up in her eyes, and she realized what she said. Turning to Minica, she said, “Little one, I’m so sorry.” With a gentle kindness, she scooped up her half-fairy half-sister and gave her a hug, allowing Minica to cry tears for love ones lost, and ones on the verge of being lost. In the end, all there was, was a pair of girls mourning the loss of their mothers and coming up with the growing despair that all they had left in the world was each other, and their father...and fates only knew how long he would last?
In her room at the Palace, Nabiki lay, trying to catch a nap on the opulent bed that she and her husband would share. Man, if my old friends could only see me now. I’m nobility now, I’m a regular at a palace, and the sister-in-law of a goddess. Ah, the good life at last, she added with a self-satisfied smirk.
that it’s so meaningless to me now, she mused, and
that I’m not able to get the things in life that are really important to me
just yet. I just wish I could get Tatewaki to agree on having children.
I understand his concerns that mental deficiencies do run in his family,
but I think we’d do well as parents. Kami
knows I’ve had more than enough years of practice.
Another thought hit her: Hope it just doesn’t happen here. That’d be the last thing that we need, since my family and friends are counting on me. I’ll have to talk to Hikaru to see if she can conjure up some contraceptives. Then again, I should probably remind her to do the same. She and Ranma have enough kids, and between them and Hiro, I have enough nieces and nephews! Checking it off on her mental list of things to watch out for, Nabiki rolled over and closed her eyes for a much-needed nap.
Shiki went through a kata for the umpteenth time. The battle of a lifetime had been at her fingertips, and well, she blew it. Somehow, she’d been given the proverbial power of the gods and cut loose with more ki than she ever had before; she didn’t know why, but she wasn’t exactly going to complain about that. For a while, she remembered all the bedtime stories she’d heard as a child, about her ancestors being able to take on whole groups and come out of it victorious and without a scratch. That was the plan, anyway.
However, reality decided to point out otherwise. Finally, the chance to prove herself, and all she could muster out of all that (massive increase in energy aside) was an adequate performance. Adequate meaning that she hadn’t defeated the enemies single-handedly and confirmed her place as the awe-inspiring Fist of Kawagishi High. Adequate meaning that she was not a legend amongst martial artists, the best there would ever be.
Right now, she thought, as she went through a tai chi chuan set, that title easily belonged to Saotome-sensei and his friend. Not only did the two completely humiliate her, but they also pulled off her family’s moves with more ease than she had ever seen. When Hibiki did the Bakusai Tenketsu, he’d not only managed to cause the earth to shatter, he’d caused a point-blank earthquake that destroyed everything in the confined epicenter of his attack. He had a ki-blast attack that basically could have leveled a few mountains, and as for hand-to-hand, he was a tower of strength that nothing on that field was even remotely capable of touching. In short, he was a living, moving juggernaut. Besides that, he was cute, too. Though not as cute as my Michael, she amended.
Of course, then there was the primal force of the Art itself, that which carried the name of Saotome Ranma. Ranma moved like the very god of fighting, with more various moves from more martial arts than she had ever seen in her life. In what little time she had to watch his simplistic defeating of each wave of opponents, she caught at least fourteen different martial arts--and at least another twenty that she had no inkling of. He switched styles flawlessly, going from what appeared to be his native kempo to jeet kun do to lua to savate to capioeria to shotokan to basuromu to wing chun and a dozen more in-between. In cases of hand-to-hand, nothing could keep up with him.
Worse, when it came to ki, he was a virtual nuclear reactor. With more power than likely any person should have--his wife included--Ranma had a ki-arsenal that absolutely embarrassed the weapons systems of several of Earth’s armies. From his massive (big understatement, that) ki wave he called Moko Takabisha to the high-speed shotgun assault called the Hyakki Yakosho, to the grand move on his list, the legendary Hiryu Shotenha...a move that was supposedly only known to her family! Yet he stood there and called it up, without the need for the prerequisite “kick-starting” the move by running in circles around his opponents. Just standing there and thrusting his fist into the sky, he created a bioenergy cyclone the size of a real typhoon, and infinitely more dangerous. And worst of all, he was not only powerful and majestic, but he was cute. Really cute. Almost as cute as...well, maybe--just maybe--cuter than Michael.
Dropping back into a ready stance, she
couldn’t concentrate any more. Saotome
Ranma, without attempting to, had shattered every dream she’d ever had.
A week ago, she was the best martial artist in her world.
Now, she realized, she was only that in her mind, and not even that now. All I have left now is
my promise to avenge Mariko-chan, and I wonder how long it’ll be until
that’s taken away from me? Without
realizing it, she’d come out of her stance.
Seeing what she did, she sighed; maybe it was useless to be the best
fighter she could be. But it was
the only life she knew--that and her love for Michael.
And do I even have that?
Sometimes, I just don’t know.
“You know, you shouldn’t let your guard down like that,” a voice behind her said. “You’re likely to get hurt.”
Shiki turned around, and her world suddenly turned into a glory of roses. She knew that voice, and it would never leave her mind. And when she turned around, the face that met her was pure music to her heart. “Michael?”
Michael favored her with a roguish grin. “Shiki, you’re good. Probably better than I was at your age, but you’re never going to be good enough to beat Ranma. I…was watching from a distance and it appears that he and Ryoga are probably two of the best martial artists in the world, if not history.” And I have a number of scars and bruises to back that up, he remembered with a twinkle in his eyes. “You don’t need to be the best in the world to be your best. And you don’t have to do it to impress me.” He flashed her another smile, the kind that always seemed to melt Theresa’s heart. Perhaps in time, his would melt, too. “Besides, you’ve got a couple holes in your defense.”
It did; she swooned to the point that she momentarily went weak in the knees. Straightening herself out, she slid into a ready position, trying to hold back a blush. “Okay, where’s the problem?”
Moving close to her and dropping into a position of his own, Michael relaxed himself for a second and said, “Let’s work on your defense a little. You’ve got great skills in offensive, but your defensive is a bit shaky. If we can cover that up, it will only improve your attacks.” Thinking about it, he asked, “How much time do you want to spend working on it?”
“With you? All the time in the world.”
The page had led him to the farthest corner of the castle. Finally they stopped in front of a simple door in a nondescript hallway. As they approached the door, though, Ranma’s senses began to work overtime, as though something was cueing them. He wasn’t sure why, and he didn’t feel at all threatened, but it was as though it needed to be displayed. A second later, it was confirmed, as his ki aura burst into life around him, unbidden and enveloping him like the benevolent halo it was. The page, absolutely awestruck at this display of power, genuflected in front of Ranma, vowed that he would send someone to escort him back when his business was complete, and then proceeded to tear down the halls like lightning.
Ranma shook his head at that, wondering about the display, then smiled wanly. “Hmm. That was odd.” No further reason to hang out in the hall, he opened the door and walked into a heavily candlelit room. Once he closed the door, though, all the candles went out, leaving his own bioluminescence as the sole thing that lit the room.
The figure of a person sat on a bed in front of him, in a room given light by the blue of Ranma’s aura. Azure glows chased away indigo shadows, covering the whole of the chamber in a warm, periwinkle radiance. The man on the bed, about the same age as his father (though in much better physical condition), gave the martial artist a pleasant smile and said, “So you’re the one who’s won our little Hikaru’s heart. Seems like you have quite a heart of your own, young man.”
“What about Hikaru?” Ranma said, already on the defensive. He’d had enough of the attacks against his wife, and he’d only been here a few hours. He was not going to put up with any more assaults. Calling up a (what he thought to be) small ball of ki, he warned, “Leave her alone, or you’ll have to deal with me.” In truth, the energy he summoned, normally enough to be about the size of a baseball, was in fact about the size of a medicine ball.
“Easy, Ranma. I’m not going to hurt her; she’s an old friend of mine.” The man waved his hand, and the ki-sphere in Ranma’s hand dissipated, following with his aura, and the lights in the room coming on. Feeling still a bit wary, Ranma took a good look at the man who apparently called him. He seemed to be in his mid-forties or so, about the same age as Hikaru’s friend Fuu, and was dressed just as opulently as the queen of Cephiro. His grayish-white, unruly mane of hair sat tousled on top of his head, framing an aged but elfin face, which held two gleaming, violet eyes. He was dressed in a robe of silver and green silk, and he carried a wooden staff with a huge emerald on its crest. For some reason, he reminded Ranma of Cologne, except this man was taller, kinder, and didn’t have the old ghoul’s amazon attitude. Ranma didn’t bother to ask the man how he knew his name; likely it would have gotten around the whole of the Palace by now.
“Actually, it’s spreading through the villages and cities of our world like wildfire,” the man said with a light chuckle. “Oh, yes, I can sense thoughts to a degree, but don’t worry--I never pry. I’m just a dithering old man in the twilight of his life. Please, come in and have a seat. I have a feeling we have a lot to discuss, you and I.”
Ranma relaxed, going for the chair and wondering at that “twilight of his life” statement; if anything, the guy looked as fit as a fiddle for someone old enough to be in middle age. “Well, I’ve gotten kinda used to weird things happening in my life, but I still don’t like none of it, so excuse me if I seemed a bit abrupt.”
The man smiled. “That’s okay; I can understand. I’m familiar with the concept as well. By the way, Lord Saotome Ranma, Hero of the Battle of Sephia, Heavenly Consort of the Pillar and Defender of the Faith, Grandmaster of the School of Anything Goes Martial Arts--” Ranma gave the other a look of bewilderment, and the man laughed. “Sorry, as you can guess, we Cephirans are big on titles, especially when it comes to the Pillar...or her husband. But, I can see you’re a rather plainspoken person, and to be honest, so am I.”
“So why all this?”
“You have a destiny about you Ranma, one that is perhaps even more convoluted than that of your wife’s. Besides, I’ve never met a person with such a significant duality in their personality as you have. I....” The man trailed off, before admitting, “Well, it seems that I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. I seem to do that too much in my old age. I haven’t properly introduced myself. I am the Guru and mage of Cephiro, and its guide during the world’s darkest times. But you can just call me Clef.”
LaFarga was slammed into the wall, painfully. With the latest round of tortures he’d endured, they’d gone beyond the realm of needlessness and into total, unnecessary insanity. As they left and shut the prison door behind him, the swordsmaster forced himself to stand, though it was only long enough to move to the farthest corner of the cell, where he could try to rest and call up what flagging reserves of stamina he had left. He’d been put through the worst torture imaginable, and he wasn’t sure how much more he was going to be able to take.
During a talk once, Fuu had told him of a religious concept from her home planet, a dimension of torture and pain and unrelenting, unyielding evils and horror. The place was called Hell. From what little he gathered, these people, these Vanden Plaz with their unusual clothing and the reverence they placed in their symbols and power, were also from Earth. Did they too, know of this Hell?
Were they trying to cause it? They were certainly succeeding in this case; drilling into his head that there was nothing he could do to protect his friends. He hadn’t seen Ferio in days, and was wondering what sort of hell they were putting him through. One of the guards had mentioned that Ferio was being tortured through some sort of symbiotic spell, one that LaFarga couldn’t even imagine what was going on.
He couldn’t have imagined either, what was happening to Umi and what little humanity in her was left. From the last time he’d seen her, it looked as though she was dying, as they were using her for nothing more than a plaything for everyone. The destroyed person that had been wearing nothing but shackles, forced to commit acts of unspeakable filth for their entertainment--despite all that had happened, LaFarga was able to build a rage in himself as he thought of his friend. To think that the final fate of a woman who once saved the planet from destruction was nothing more than a mere source of sick play for them was upsetting to say the least.
Sadly, though, they were at least in better shape than Cabrio had been. After they killed the poor man, they used him for target practice for spells, arrows, what have you. The remainder they intended to dump in some spot where it would be easy for Cephiro’s army to find. His heart grieved for a noble warrior who fought to save Umi from further desecration and was simply squashed as one would an insect. He only hoped that the others would be there for Presea when she was given the news.
Then again, how much longer until the rest of us end up that way? Will I never get to see my wife and child again? He remembered that Caldina had wanted a second child, and they’d talked about it; would this travesty prevent them all from ever having happiness again? In the end, LaFarga found a cruel irony: the last two times when the world was in crisis, it had been easier to fight the evil. Now, while the planet wasn’t physically in danger, everything else was, and they had no defense against it.
“Altra,” a voice said behind the young princess as she walked through one of the grand halls, “aren’t you going to say hi to your older brother?”
“Marino! Carina! You’re back! I missed you!” The smallest member of the royal household took off like a rocket before wrapping herself around her older brother’s leg. “I was so worried!”
Marino bent down and hugged his younger sister back. “I toldja I’d come back, didn’t I, squirt?” The crown prince of Cephiro favored the princess with a smile, before looking back to his counterpart and saying, “See? At least someone’s glad to see me here.” The prince was very much his father’s son, with little of Fuu in him. With the same physical features and build as Ferio, the only sign of his mother in him was the blonde hair (with a shock of green due to style), and the biting intelligence in his soft brown eyes.
For that he received a kiss from his partner. “You’re just upset because Hichan isn’t here to tell you to go bugger off.” A musical laugh came from the lips of Carina, the daughter of LaFarga and Caldina. Dark skinned and with hazel eyes and her mother’s rose hair, the swordsmaster was nearly as formidable as her father was when it came to fighting. Furthermore, she also had some of her mother’s skill for illusions, not to mention the very real voluptuousness that Caldina had taught her daughter. She preferred to dress in armor similar to her father’s, which by no means meant that she wasn’t capable of the same sexiness of her mother.
Altra went over and hugged Carina in turn. “I missed you too,” meaning every word of it. With the exception of the rather imperious Hichan and her partner-in-crime Minica, all of the second generation of Cephiro’s nobility was quite close to each other. In fact, the fact they weren’t there was an indicator of how bad the situation was.
“So, where’s mother?” Marino inquired.
“She’s with Aunt Kuu and the Pillar,” the girl supplied. “Aunt Kuu’s the best! She’s sa’posed to be older than mother, but she’s actually younger! And the Pillar...she’s really pretty and nice, and she’s so friendly! I got to sit on her lap and she said she wants to take me home with her to Earth some weekend. Marino, where’s Earth? Is it over on the other side of the Edsel hills?”
“It’s a little farther than that, Altra,” Marino commented. He was interrupted by the shattering sound of crystal hitting the floor over by the statue of his deceased aunt, Emeraude. Looking up, he noted the wobbly chandeliers, with yet another of the crystal shards missing. “I thought the house staff fixed that already.”
Carina shrugged. “I’ll have a talk with the chamberlain and see what we can do about it, dear. Hey, here comes your mother now. Hello, Aunt Fuu.”
The queen strolled in alongside Kuu and Hikaru. Marino went up and hugged his mother, commenting, “Hello, mother. As you can see, Carina and I are still in one piece.”
“I can tell,” Fuu said, the edge of relief in her voice. “With your father still...you know...we need to be safe more than ever. And soon the fighting will begin, in earnest.”
“I thought the fighting was already happening in earnest, Aunt Fuu,” Carina commented, surprised by her words. “And for that matter, who are the people behind you?”
Gesturing in turn, she commented, “Well, the one on my left is my older--yes, older--sister, Kuu. The one on my right is my best friend, Shidou, er, Saotome Hikaru--better known to you two as the Pillar.” The two gasped, caught between welcoming another of them into their midst, and the need to genuflect before the universe’s Holiest of Holies. Not quite stifling a grin, Fuu added, “Relax, you two. Hikaru-chan’s a very down to Earth goddess.”
Sensing her cue, Kuu went up and hugged her nephew for the first time, noting that he didn’t look much younger than she did. “Wow, Fuu, you were right--he is cute.” Seeing him blush, she turned to Carina and said, “Take care of him. You two look great together.” Kuu gave both an appraising look, that of a master matchmaker, and found the match to be ideal. “In fact, make sure I get invited to the wedding.” Both of them blushed this time, and a vindicated Kuu looked at Fuu. “Yup, they’re great for each other.”
“Yes, your ladyship,” both answered.
Fuu was about to introduce them next to the pillar, when the royal pet, Kaze, walked into the room. Looking at it, Hikaru noted that it was the same sort of animal that she’d named as “Hikari” here in this world. She just hoped it wasn’t possessed by a demon, either. Altra picked the pet up, hugging it to herself and giggling as the small critter licked her nose.
There was the sound of shattering, and Altra screamed. The adults turned, almost frozen in time to their spots as the faulty chandelier fell, headed on a collision course for the young princess. None of them was going to be able to react in time, save for Fuu, who was so stunned, she began to race towards her child with the sick fear that she wouldn’t make it in time.
Altra froze, unable to move at the sight of the sizable structure that was about to crash down on her. Depending on which angle it hit, she would either be crushed to death, or suffer multiple fatal stab wounds as the crystal slivers bored through her body.
There was a flash of green, and suddenly the object was stopped, a mere couple of feet from the frightened, shivering child. Fuu raced in, moved her daughter out of the way, and the glass missile continued its path to the floor, slamming against it with the sound of a thousand shards exploding, as the queen and princess slid to relative safety. However, when she turned to face everyone to tell them Altra was safe, she found herself merely staring in surprise.
As did the others.
Holding her hand out in a silent plea to save her niece, Kuu was glowing with the same verdant wind energy as Fuu usually manifested. Slowly withdrawing her hand, she shook uncontrollably, not believing as to what she just did. Kuu stared at her hand, and whispered a confused “Nani?” before passing out, thankfully caught by Marino before she could hit the ground.
Fuu finally managing to calm Altra down, half-whispered to Hikaru, “Did you...?”
“Not in the least,” Hikaru replied, seeming just as surprised. “I would never force any abilities on anyone, you know that.” Fuu never answered, as she was too busy holding her daughter and absolutely grateful that she was still alive. Not wishing to disturb the mother and child, she took Kuu and with the help of Carina, left Fuu and her children alone.
“Um, Your Holiness,” Carina began in a very polite tone, not sure how to address the redhead.
“Just ‘Hikaru’ will be fine. I’m not a very formal person,” Hikaru answered, giving her a smile.
“Um, okay. Well, then, um, please don’t take this as an insult, Your Hol...um, Hikaru, but why are you all so different than what we’ve been told?” The girl seemed to have a confused look on her face. “Granted, it’s a pleasant surprise, but none of you seem to be how you were described.”
“Wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t,” Hikaru admitted. Looking down at her friend, she had to admit that this was by no means expected. Kuu, was this my fault? First Ranma and the others, and now you? Am I doing this? Though she kept it to herself, the worry that she might unintentionally be behind this worried her very much. These people are my family and friends, not my own band of apostles, contrary to what the scribes here say. What am I doing to them? Her mind wandered down the dark path before a second thought came to mind, one even less pleasing:
Emeraude, did you ever have these problems once? And was it this sort of thing that made you come up with the decision that eventually killed you? Hikaru fought off a wave of concern; was she and Ranma doomed to the same fate as Emeraude and Zagato? Would that be the fate of any Pillar who dared fall in love?
Hikaru turned and looked at the statue of her predecessor, the woman she killed to save this world. I’m a goddess right now. But I’d give it all up right now to just be at home with all my loved ones.
“AAAARGHHHH! Where am I this time?!?!?!” Ryoga cursed his luck. Here he was, in a magic place, and he couldn’t even summon up some sort of magic to keep himself from getting lost. The party for them was in two hours, and at this rate, he could end up being lost for days on end.
Turning yet another unfamiliar corner that he was sure was the right way, he was rewarded with yet another dead end. He wanted to punch through the walls, but held himself in check; that wasn’t exactly a brilliant thing to do. For a few moments he wished his wife were here; he always seemed to be able to navigate normally when in Akari’s presence. But unfortunately, she wasn’t, and so he was here. He only hoped that wherever she was, that she was okay. Then again, her friend Kagome’s with her, so she’ll be fine.
Turning yet another corner, he ran into a pair of people chatting along about something in a language that seemed unusually familiar to him. “Yes, can I help you?” There was a pause before some sort of recognition. “Hey, you’re one of the Pillar’s Holy Apostles, aren’t you?”
“Well, I haven’t heard it put that way,” Ryoga replied with a laugh and scratching his head. “Well, sorry to be a bother, but I seem to have gotten lost.”
“Well,” the man said, “my friend and I are pretty much done with our conversation, so I’ll be more than happy to escort you back to wherever you’d like to go.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” As the three split apart and Ryoga followed his escort to the living section of the palace, Ryoga wondered about the dialect that the two had been speaking. It had sounded like German (he’d picked up some in his unintentional globetrotting), but he could have been wrong. After all, it’s not like he’d been here before, so he had no idea of the languages of this universe were. Besides, this whole place looks like something out of Bavaria, anyway.
“Your Highness?” The chamberlain was knocking at Fuu’s door.
“Come in,” Fuu answered, as she put the cape on her Wind Knight gear. Queen though she may be, and Hikaru had decided that it might be best to boost the morale of the party attendants by being dressed as Magic Knights and not as queen and Pillar--besides, she knew Hikaru never liked the robes of the Pillar, as they reminded her too much of Emeraude.
“Your Highness, I hate to take away from your planned attendance at the party tonight, but I just got word from Lieutenant Alero, and he requests your presence in the war room, since General Presea is unable to attend.”
Fuu sighed. Please don’t tell me more bad news. I don’t think I could stomach it right now. “Is it that bad?”
“Yes, I’m afraid. Alero reports that the ARK CEPHIRO has completed their scouting missions to Fahren and Chizetam.” The chamberlain paused, unable to say another word. But Fuu looked into his eyes, and noted something she’d never seen in her longtime servant: unyielding fear.
“What happened?” she asked, really sure she was afraid for the answer. Tatra, Tarta, Asuka, Sanyun and the rest--was there a reason why they hadn’t answered? They were good friends, and Fuu had never thought that they would abandon Cephiro in its time of need; something had to be wrong--it was the only answer. A second later, as the chamberlain discreetly whispered why in her ear, the queen mumbled a “Tell Alero I’ll be down there in five minutes.” As he left, she unleashed a windstrike on her vanity mirror, shattering it into a million shards. The shards fluttered in the mystical breeze like so many innocents being cast about by the great tides of war.
“Damn,” she sobbed, as tears ran down her cheeks.
“Wow,” a glittery-eyed Shiki told Michael. “This is so very beautiful. And you’re definitely a hunk.”
“Thanks,” Michael commented, looking well in his tuxedo. “And you are definitely cute.” At that phrase, she swooned, and Michael knew that he was going to have one particular girl clamped on his arm for the night. So much for peace of mind, he thought half-jokingly.
Over where she stood, Hikaru wasn’t feeling too good about this party. It’s just like last time. I just hope it doesn’t end the same way. Since the party was formal, Hikaru had taken the time to supply everyone with formal clothing. With the exception of Nabiki (who chose to wear a western-style gown) and Hikaru herself (who reluctantly slipped into the Fire Knight armor once more), the women were wearing nothing but the most formal of kimonos. Likewise, most of the men had opted for the same, save for Michael, who wore a tux; and Ranma, who opted for the most formal tang set Hikaru could create.
But all she could remember was the same layout as the last time she was here. The only difference was that fewer people were willing to approach the Pillar (something that unlike last time, she could live with a little more), and that she’d hovered near Ranma all night. She trusted her husband totally. That other Hikaru, however.... Just like Umi, Hikaru feared. Just like her mother...and that scares me more than anything else.
“Something wrong, love?” Ranma asked. He’d seen something in her eyes all night, and it wasn’t just like Hikaru to act like his second shadow.
“Please don’t leave me,” she said, in a plea that had two sorts of meanings for her. Realizing what she’d said, she added a hasty excuse of, “I really didn’t want to come to this, but Fuu-chan spent all this time setting it up, and I couldn’t say no. I’d appreciate not being left alone right now.” Unconsciously, she found herself holding onto Ranma’s arm for dear life.
Ranma looked into his wife’s eyes, and saw the fear that he held in them. While she’d never told him the events of what had happened at the party so long ago, Kuu had, and he knew the real meaning behind her words. Giving her the sloppy grin that she’d always love about him, his words said it all: “I’ll never leave you, Hikaru. No matter what, there’s not enough stuff in this or any universe to keep me away from you.” He bent down and kissed her on the forehead. “Everything’ll be alright, gorgeous. I promise.”
She drew strength from that. “Thank you, anata. Even a goddess needs to be loved sometimes,” she said, cryptically.
In another part of the ballroom, a group of beautiful females were watching the two pigtailed martial artists, feeling a sort of guilty envy for the Pillar and an absolute dreaminess for the strong, devilishly handsome man at her side. Several of the women were completely drooling over him...or were, until Hichan announced that Saotome Ranma was hers, and no one else’s.
Sintra arched a brow at her friend. “Oh really, Hichan? Well, I see a couple of problems with that.”
“Problems? Ha, right! One good look at me in this Fahrenjin evening gown, and he’ll be mine.” The soft aqua pseudo-Chinese dress that Hichan wore was reminiscent of the waves in the ocean. It was also fairly revealing, something that no other noblewoman save the brash and forward Ryuuzaki Hikaru would wear. Sitting on her shoulder, Minica was wearing the same thing, but the fairy seemed to be slightly embarrassed.
“Well, one is the fact that, if I recall, he’s the Pillar’s husband,” Sintra pointed out.
“And they seem to be happy together,” Minica added.
“A mere triviality. I seem to recall hearing that Little Miss Hotspot over there was dating my father at one time and lost him simply because my mother was a better find.” A lie, and she knew that; it was no secret that Umi and Lantis’ marriage was nothing more than one of convenience, but she also knew Sintra wouldn’t challenge her on that. Neither mother nor father really talked about that woman, even though I’m named after her. Was she that bad to them? Something dawned on the Water Squire as she watched the redhead, and she silently vowed, If my parents’ trashed marriage is because of you, Pillar, then you will pay for that. “And the other?”
“Because I think he’s cute, Hichan, and he just might be the right guy for me.” Sintra, having borrowed her mother’s white, revealing gown, smiled at her friend’s frustration. “After all, if you think you can have him, then it’s a sure then that I know I can. In fact, I think I will.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Sintra,” Minica moaned. Just because she was small, she was being ignored. Was anyone planning to listen to her?
“Don’t you dare, Sintra!” Hichan replied. “He’s mine, I tell you!” Both women slowly began to advance on the Saotomes, followed in tow by the rest of the young noblewomen.
Not too far away from the throng, three people standing next to each other, at the same time, instinctively chose the same words to say: “Oh, shit--here we go again.” The collective look on the faces of Ryoga, Ukyo, and Nabiki revealed that this was something they were painfully familiar with.
“I don’t believe this,” Ryoga moaned. “How the hell does he do it? Look at all those girls staring at him, and he’s not even aware of it! At least Hikaru’s more aware of how things really stand.”
Ukyo nodded agreement. “You mean at least Ranma’s head won’t get caved in as much. I wonder if we should intrude?”
It was Nabiki who answered that. “For the most part, no. Ranma’s going to have to learn how to handle things on his own. However,” the brunette replied as her eyes narrowed in anger, “I don’t trust that other Hikaru at all. If she starts messing with our Hikaru, there’s gonna be hell to pay, and I’ll be the one handling the bills.”
Oblivious to all of this, the Saotomes were dancing, and trying to have the time of their lives, basking in the moment. Hikaru was finally able to reach some semblance of relaxation when a voice behind her said, “May I have this dance?” The voice was frightening familiar, and Hikaru gasped in shock, her blood turning into ice and her whole body shaking. She turned around, barely in control of herself, ready to face the man that she once loved, a lifetime ago.
“Hikaru,” Lantis said with a barely controlled joy in his voice. “I was told you had returned, and hadn’t aged a day.” Hikaru looked at him and found very little difference in him, despite the years. Though his hair had gone salt-and-pepper, and he’d grown a thick mustache, everything else about his was the same from his black armor to the rougish cape he wore about the shoulders. There wasn’t even a ring on his finger, the symbol of marriage between him and Umi. “It’s been a long time, Hikaru. Too long.”
And are they married? Hikaru wondered. Fuu didn’t mention anything about Umi at all. I wonder.... “Y-yes, yes it has,” she said, an uncertain feeling building within her. Was it her love for him, coming back to the surface after being buried after so long? Ranma wouldn’t be jealous of that; she accepted his love of Akane, and knew he could do the same in this circumstance. But that didn’t turn out to be the emotion she fully revealed to herself a split-second later. She tasted the feeling, trying to probe its depths, and found a feeling that she was rarely ever accustomed to: anger. Anger and betrayal. She was shivering from anger. And in that moment of realization, it burst forth like an inferno.
“Yes, it has,” she reiterated. “And I’d like to keep it that way, swordsman. Good evening to you.” Hikaru turned back to Ranma, only to find Lantis had placed his hand on her shoulder, saying something that she didn’t comprehend. She wasn’t wanting to, a part of her realized. She would never forgive him, she knew that now. She only said one phrase to him, her words tinged with the burning fire of smoldering rage: “Let go of me, Lantis. There is nothing to say, and nothing I want to hear from you.”
“Hikaru, I just want to--” Lantis found his arm hastily moved from its spot on her shoulder, and Lantis looked at who did it with anger. “That, my friend, is a mistake.”
“The lady said lay off, pal. You should learn to listen.” The speaker was a young man, about Hikaru’s age, and with a similar hairstyle. He was dressed in an indigo suit with a gold dragon on it that looked reminiscent of formal attire in the Fahrenjin court. A recently arrived courier from that world, pledging aid to Cephiro in its time of need? He wasn’t aware if the other two worlds were in the same condition that Cephiro was, since nothing had been heard from them since the beginning of the war. “So keep your paws off the lady.”
“Fool,” Lantis snarled. Who did this guy think he was, to treat Cephiran nobility like that? He expected that Hikaru might be angry with him, but to have some upstart come in and play hero was just beyond the pale. “Who do you think you are to tell me what I can and cannot do with Her Holiness the Pillar?” Lantis wondered if he might have chosen a wrong turn of phrase in that last set of words, as it might set the guy off. Not that it mattered, but the last thing that should be happening in a place like this would be to cause a scene.
Needless to say, it happened.
Eyes glistening with anger, the man snarled, “I’m Saotome Ranma, Grand Master of the Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu, and her husband. So if Hikaru says lay off, you’d best lay off, ‘cause if you lay one more hand on her, I’ll put your sorry ass in a pine box, d’ya hear me?” Ranma made a fist in warning, and the room filled with a massive cerulean hue as his ki-halo brightened into existence around him.
“I don’t care who you are,” Lantis said, not quite sure if he heard the man correctly. Hikaru, married? “Get your hands off me or I will cut it off.” Lantis reached for his energy sword’s handle with the other hand, and things looked like it was going to get messy, real quick.
And just as things were getting bad enough, it got worse.
“Ranma, darling!” Hichan put her arms around him and said, “It’s so nice of you to talk to my father, but he’d really like to talk to the redhead bimbo right now, so come with me and I’ll keep you busy.” Nodding to Sintra, she whispered, “Help me get him out of here, and we can fight about him later.” Both girls grabbed Ranma and began to pull him away, despite his protests. Finally, she called out to Lantis, “Enjoy your conversation, Papa. Sintra and I are going to have a chat with this wonderful man here.”
“Man,” Ryoga said, “that girl could’ve given Kodachi pointers in crassness.” Ukyo suppressed the urge to bash him for that remark.
“Ranma,” Kuno seethed from where he stood. “I’ve learned that after all these years you were not to blame for your problems, but would it kill you to stand up for yourself?” The flute of wine he held in his hand shattered into tiny shards, and out of the corner of his eye he noticed Nabiki and Ukyo with angry looks, directed at the women who were dragging off Ranma.
Apparently that was a harbinger of what was to come, because at the same time Kuno said this, Ranma got back to his feet, and unintentionally became the dragger vice the dragged as he stormed right back to where he was. He'd promised Hikaru she'd be safe, and old flame or not, Cephiran noble or not, Ranma trusted this guy far less than he could have thrown him.
"Back for more, knave?" Lantis answered coldly, while giving Hikaru a look of confusion as if to say, 'you married this guy instead of me?'
"Anytime you're ready, meatball!" Ranma snarled, ignoring the two women tugging on his arms as hard as they could, not for matters of just personal pleasure, but one of self-preservation: if they didn't get Ranma out of there, there would be a fight between the two men, and given the power levels involved, well, Cephiro really needed its main stronghold still intact....
Hichan cooed once more, a little more urgently. "Ranma darling, c'mon. Let's get back to my chambers and get nice and comfortable and Sintra and I can keep you company while Papa and the redhead ditz talk things over."
"Who are you calling a ditz, you tramp?" Finally, Hikaru had enough. Storming away from Lantis, she flickered as she walked towards the two women, her clothing changing from the Fire Knight’s armor to that of her tang and jeans, an ironic way of stating she meant business. Hikaru noted that everything had stopped and that the whole group was now making a scene, but to hell with it--she wasn’t about to let anyone take off with her husband, and she was by no means ever going to let history repeat itself. I’ll be damned if I ever let another Ryuuzaki woman try to take my guy away from me!!!! “Let. Him. Go,” she roared quietly, her tones weightier than whole worlds.
Hichan’s answer was to continue her attempt to drag Ranma off, despite it not having an effect. Ranma was so fixated on what Lantis was trying to do to Hikaru, he'd hardly noted the actions of the other two.
“And if I refuse?” the Water Squire challenged the Pillar, letting go of Ranma and going toe-to-toe with the slightly smaller woman.
Minica, getting a full view of the angry redhead, whispered in her sister’s ear: “Um, onnesama, I really don’t think this is a good idea....” Of course, she was pointedly ignored. “Okay, no one listen to me,” she said aloud, flying off Hichan’s shoulder for somewhere more safe, like Sintra’s shoulder.
“You know, you should listen to her,” Hikaru commented coolly, deciding that any attempt to reason with this girl was not going to work. Hikaru tried to remember the last time she tried to reason with someone and it didn’t really work with Fuitamu Keiei either, so what good was it going to do here? “She’s trying to prevent you from getting hurt.” Lantis looked at Hikaru, surprised at her implied threat. Ranma finally took stock of what was going on with his wife and realized that there was more afoot than just the forty-something would-be Romeo, here.
think you can hurt me? You
couldn’t do anything like that at all, you worthless piece of refuse!
You call yourself the Pillar, our ‘goddess’! Let me tell you what I think of you!”
Hichan’s eyes flashed a barely controllable rage, all of it directed at
the goddess through her hating, screeching words.
“YOU, SHIDOU HIKARU, ARE NOTHING BUT A FRAUD AND A SCAM, AND NOT
WORTHY TO BE THE QUEEN OF SLUTS, MUCH LESS THE PILLAR OF THE UNIVERSE!!!!
TO THINK I WAS NAMED AFTER YOU--IF MY MOTHER ONLY KNEW WHAT A SNIVELING,
USELESS PERSON YOU REALLY WERE, SHE WOULD HAVE THOUGHT BETTER OF IT!!!!
ALL OF THIS WE’RE SUFFERING THROUGH IS YOUR FAULT!!!!
WE’RE BEING SLAUGHTERED BY A WAR, OUR ALLIED PLANETS HAVEN’T BEEN
HEARD FROM MONTHS, AND WE DON’T EVEN KNOW IF THEY’VE SUFFERED OUR FATE!!!!
MY MOTHER AND MY UNCLES ARE PRISONERS OF WAR BECAUSE THEY WERE CAPTURED
BY THE ENEMIES THAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT US FROM!!!!
MY MOTHER MAY BE DEAD, AND ALL YOU CAN DO IS COME HERE AND WALTZ IN AND
TELL US EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT?!?!?!?
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THEY INVADED FOUR MONTHS AGO?!?!?
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE PEOPLE OF FAHREN AND CHIZETAM PROBABLY CALLED OUT
FOR YOUR HELP?!?!?!? YOU’RE A
WORTHLESS FAKE, YOUR SO-CALLED HOLINESS, AND I WILL PROVE THAT TO YOU BY DOING
EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO BRING YOU DOWN A COUPLE OF PEGS, STARTING WITH TAKING
YOUR HUSBAND FROM YOU!!!!!”
“You’ll do it over my dead body,” Hikaru seethed, and knowing that it wasn’t going to take much to set her off.
“Watch your tongue, wretch. It just might come to that!” With that, to the surprise of everyone, Hichan slapped Hikaru across the face as hard as she could, a blow strong enough to drop her to the floor.
Hikaru got on her knees for a second, shaking visibly. She then looked at Hichan, and in that gaze, all bets were off. “That, was a mistake. KACCHU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!!!!!!” To the absolute surprise of everyone, Hikaru cut loose with a burst of 418 punches, dropping the Water Squire before she could even react. Turning to Sintra, she snarled, “I don’t have a problem with you...yet. Let go of my husband.” Helping Ranma off the floor, she finally turned to Lantis and said in a thick voice, “That was a warning. For both of you. I’m no longer the sweet, naïve and stupid girl you knew.” There was a puff of flame, and when it cleared, both Hikaru and Ranma were gone.
Fuu had just arrived at the end of the battle to see Hikaru’s brimstone teleportation and the unconscious, bleeding Hichan on the floor, her shocked father leaning over her. “What the hell just happened?” she asked.
“The Pillar,” one of the minor nobles answered. “Apparently her ladyship Hikaru and Her Holiness Hikaru don’t really seem to get along.”
“Oh just great,” Fuu said mournfully. “And I thought I was going to be the one to be the party-wrecker.” Raising her voice, she called out to the assembly, “I’m sorry all of you, but the news I’m about to give you isn’t good. To be honest, I didn’t want to tell you all, but we’re at war, and frankly, the people need to learn the truth about what’s happening. In fact, after I’m done, I suggest you ride off to your respective villages and inform your people.
There was a flash of light, and when it was gone, Ranma stood in a room even larger than the grand ballroom of the palace. With Hikaru still holding him, he looked around and the cavernous chamber around him. The whole of the place seemed to be made up of a rosy hued rock, and glowed with a warm light, a place meant to comfort and give strength to its inhabitants.
Hikaru, in the meanwhile, turned and glomped her husband. “I-I’m sorry, Ranma. I made a fool of myself at our party. I-I-I...I just lost control of myself. I couldn’t let her take you from me. You’re my life, anata, one of the things that gives me a reason to live.” She began crying into his shirt, hoping that the tears wouldn’t trigger his curse--that was the last thing she would need right now.
Ranma took her face in his hands and turned her head gently to face his. “Was that what you were worried about?” he asked, and was answered with a silent, tearful nod. “Sweetheart, you shouldn’t have worried. Kuu told me about what happened to you and that jerk Lantis back then. It’s not the same.”
Hikaru looked up at him, completely unsure of what to say. “It’s not?”
“No, not at all, Hikaru. Nothing, not those idiots, not Lantis, not even that Hikaru girl and her friends, are going to keep me away from you. We’re married for a reason, you know.” He bent down and gave her a gentle but loving kiss, one that had embodied the truest form of love since time began...in any universe.
She leaned into his chest again when they stopped, uttering a sigh of relief and contentment. “I love you, Saotome Ranma.”
He chuckled warmly. “And I love you, Saotome Hikaru--and don’t you forget that.” The pair held each other for what seemed like the better part of forever, one simple moment encased in its own eternity. “I’ll always love you, Hikaru, and I’ll always be here for you.” Now that the personal crisis was over with, he looked around. “So, where are we?”
“Well, I gave my old Fire Knight suites to Nabiki and Tatewaki so they could have a place comfortable enough, though I had to rearrange the place to get rid of my old stuff and install something more to Nabiki’s liking--your sister’s picky at interior decorating, you know. So, since I decided that I’d rather not live at the palace, I chose for us to live here.” Letting go of him, she gestured with her arms, “This is the Cave of the Fire Mashin, where my Mashin resided.”
“Still can’t believe you were a mecha pilot in addition to everything else,” Ranma commented, “though it does explain your Evangelion, Macross, and Gundam fascination.”
“Hush, you,” she teased. “Anyway, when Mokona took the three Mashins to wherever they went, we were left with nothing but the caves, though they’re on three different areas of the planet; in fact, we’re probably about a few thousand kilometers away from the palace right now. Since they no longer were needed for their original use, Fuu decided to do something with them. The Cave of the Air Mashin, located on the largest of the air islands, is now a military base for the GTOs and the ARK CEHPIRO, apparently. The Cave of the Water Mashin is now a summer palace for the personal use of the Magic Knights’ families only. As for my cave, it was deemed the Shrine of the Pillar and was left alone for my personal disposition.”
“So, we’re going to live here while we’re, um, visiting?” Ranma inquired, looking around at the barren chamber.
Hikaru caught his look and gave him a smile. “Silly.” Walking behind him then standing on tiptoes, she reached up and covered his eyes. “I didn’t think we were going to live in a place this empty.” She uncovered them a second later...
...and Ranma found himself standing in the center of a massive palace. Looking around at the furniture, wall scrolls and paintings, and various other designs of the room they were standing in reminded him a lot of the Teien Museum in Meguro, a favorite place of Hikaru’s and a one-time imperial summer palace. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it was one of Japan’s best examples of modern art as well as a place that Hikaru privately always wanted to design her own home like. “Hey, isn’t this the Teien’s design?”
Explaining her choice, Hikaru said, “Well, you know how much I liked the décor of the Teien, anata, and I didn’t think you’d mind. Besides, I didn’t want to make it look like home. I miss the children already.”
Ranma nodded his agreement. “We’ll see them again, sweetheart. We’ll be done with this soon, and it’ll be back to home and our normal lives.”
“I hope so. This Supreme Being job gets old really quick,” Hikaru yawned, stretching. “Well, it’s late and I want to get to bed. We’ll need our rest if we’re going to start preparing for war tomorrow.”
“Um, sweetheart, it’s only early evening. Don’t you think it’s a bit too early to--mfph!” His words were cut off when Hikaru pulled him down and laid a sensual, powerful kiss on him,
“I said I want to go to bed,” she said in as husky and breathy a voice as she could. “I don’t recall mentioning sleep.” Arching her brow, she knew what Ranma was going to say and cut it off with a “Tofu said to hold off only until I’m well enough. I think I’m well enough now, don’t you?” Further debate was silenced with another kiss.
“Um, right.” Ranma picked up his wife and asked, “The bedroom?”
“Second floor, last door on the right.” She ran a finger along his strong jaw, thinking to herself, Hey, if I’m a goddess, I’m allowed to have myself a little slice of paradise, right?
By the next morning, the pair had been quite busy. Also, as a result of Hikaru’s tie to the world, several tens of thousands of other couples were also busy, and by the morning, though no one would know it, the potential population of Cephiro would rise by twenty percent.
One of those who had been busy had been Daimler...but he’d been busy in other means. While most of his troops had taken a day of relaxation yesterday, he’d met in private meeting with most of his military staff. Chief on the agenda was the Pillar, and the clear threat that she now posed to their victory.
“Damn,” Daimler said, punching the table. “And you said there was no way to capture the Pillar, Berlina?”
“No sir,” she answered, her head cast in shame. “Whatever she brought with her was far more powerful than I’d ever seen. A fighter that would have made a fine ally or a deadly enemy...and I suspect, the latter will be the case.” Looking back at Daimler, she said, “I wonder if the trip into this dimension has been a worthy endeavor.”
“Of course it has,” Trabant answered. “We’ve found a treasure mine of technology on the abandoned world they call Autozam, and our surprise attacks on Chizetam and Fahren have left us with two more worlds under our grasp. It is a terrible shame that the two leaders of Chizetam died, but apparently they don’t have the...endurance...that the Lady Umi seems to.” The man gave a sharp bark of laughter, and added, “A pity that Empress Asuka and her husband have gone into hiding. If we had them, we could outright control that planet.”
“We’ll find them.” Targa’s sibilant voice, from his seat, brought to mind the concept of a snake talking before striking. “And I assure you, they will not live long.”
“Unless the Pillar and her group finds them first,” Berlina remarked.
“They’re your people, eh, Botan,” Passat said while addressing her by her real name, his face a picture of insult. “After all, you would know them best, being one of them, am I not correct?”
“They are of a different time. They are foreign to me.” Berlina gave her counterparts a grim look, and changed the subject to one that she’d had on her mind the past few days. “Do you really believe that we can use this army to retake Earth?”
“We must,” Daimler said, holding up a book--the same book that Citroen had taken when she’d followed the Pillar so many months back. She’d brought it back on her death, and to them, it revealed the fate of the future--a future only they could change. “Our people are counting on it. As you can guess, this book brought back from Earth tells that we’ve lost the war, and that our leaders and way of life were destroyed. As the leader here, I believe that we must carry on the work of our predecessors, so that we may someday be powerful enough to return to Earth and take over again. All of you are dismissed. I need some time to think of our next step.”
Heading back to his private spaces, he thought about his halcyon days as a simple junior officer in his homeland’s army before his commanders chose him to lead up their secret project: Vanden Plaz. Obsessed with the mystic, the leader wanted to send a military force through time and space, in order to find any magical artifact that would give him an edge in his war of domination. Choosing a group of elite soldiers and an officer from their allied nations, the force was sent through a conquered mystic area known as the Portal of Ages. Somehow, one of those versed in ancient lore managed to hit upon a spell that opened the gateway, and the Vanden Plaz force was expelled into the realms beyond. He remembered that feeling when they first transported to Autozam. It hadn’t been pleasant.
Finally in his own room, he opened the Japanese-language history book, comparing the notes that “Berlina” had transcribed into his native tongue. The Portal of Ages had been destroyed by something known only as “Emeraude”. Nothing was known about the force that destroyed it, other than the fact that it had seemed to be a woman who apparently was of the fey. She glowed with an ambient green hue, and there was a sinister, hateful look in her eyes. History on Earth wrote that off as nothing but legend, placing it alongside such other insubstantial myths. The only reason this was mentioned even in such a book as this was because this was from the folklore of the time..
Emeraude. There was something about that name, something that seemed to gnaw at his very bones. From the reports of the incident in Belgium, this Emeraude being must be very powerful. Could that same power be what fueled the Pillar? And if not, could that Emeraude power be used for the purposes of the Vanden Plaz?
Daimler smiled. It would be so, if he could find a way, and he would use that power to shape the world in his ideals...the ideals he’d been weaned on since childhood. Cephiro would be made pure...
...or it would be destroyed in a cleansing fire.
Part Seven: Commencement of War
As you can see, the chapter’s sort of longer than usual, and that’s going to be the norm. I realize this slows down release time immensely, but hey, the more Duet the merrier, right? ^_~
Yes, the enemy is becoming clearer, and I imagine there will be plenty of complaints about who they are and why they are on Cephiro, once fully revealed. The truth is, there is no clear answer, and in fact, things are getting murkier. Just remember that in every work of fiction, there must be heroes and there must be villains. The line between black and white has been drawn. Let the war begin.
Well, that’s all for now.
I promise I’ll try to get the next chapter out a little faster.
And thanks to all who gave C&C on this long awaited part. It helped.